Tag Archives: Puna

Maku’u Stories, Part 5: What Uncle Sonny Kamahele Taught Me About Business

Let me tell you something really interesting I learned from my Uncle Sonny Kamahele. He had 20 acres in Maku‘u, in Puna on the Big Island. There was a rare kipuka there with soil that was 10 feet deep, no rocks or anything. There was a spring in one corner of his property.

I was just out of college with an accounting degree and lots of ideas about business. So I looked at his land and wondered if he would lease me 10 acres to grow bananas. I scratched my chin and thought about how I could grow 35,000 pounds per acre on those 10 acres. Maybe 300,000 pounds a year if I took into account turn around space.

And yet on the other 10 acres, Uncle Sonny was making his living with just 10 or 20 hills of watermelons, with maybe four plants on each hill. People would come from miles around to buy his watermelons. It provided him with enough income to support himself and to send money to his wife and son in the Philippines.

Here’s the lesson I learned from him: It’s not about how big your farm is. Your business is successful if it supports your situation. I learned a lot from Uncle Sonny, but I think that’s the most important thing I learned from him.

That’s what I always look at when I visit a farm. Not how big it is, or how much money it makes, but how it operates, and whether it solves the problem it is trying to solve.

Here’s why I’m telling you this right now. We have a real energy problem looming. I think the situation with oil is very serious, and there are definitely going to be winners and losers in the world. We need to position ourselves to be winners, and it’s going to take all of us, big and small.

How are we going to feed Hawai‘i?

Every one of us is going to play a role in it – from the largest farmers to the small folks growing food in their backyard. Do you remember in the plantation camps, especially the Filipino camps, how the yards were always planted with food? Beans, eggplants, the whole thing. I don’t see it so much anymore, but we can do it again.

We are lucky on the Big Island. We’re not crowded and everybody has room to grow food. You know how you can tell we have plenty space? Everybody’s yard is too big to mow! We have the ability to do this.

It’s going to take all of us. It’s not just about any one of us, it’s about all of us, from the biggest to the smallest.

I’m lucky to have had my Uncle Sonny Kamahele to learn from when I was younger. I spent a lot of time with him and I got a real feeling for how he made decisions, which was old style.

His lifestyle was a real connection to the past, too. His lawn and the whole area were always immaculate, practically manicured. He lived pretty close to the old ways with a lot of remnants from the past. His red and green house had stones from down the beach under the pillars, and lumber over the dirt floors. He built beds on those floors and then had five or six lauhala mats on the beds instead of mattresses; old style. There was a redwood water tank.

He listened to the County extension folks, and I learned from that, too – to pay attention to the people who know something.

But one of the most important things I learned was that your business, big or small, is a success if it supports your particular situation.

See also:
Maku‘u Stories, Part 1: My Kamahele Family in Maku’u
Maku‘u Stories, Part 2: Cousin Frank Kamahele
Maku‘u Stories, Part 3: Uncle Sonny
Maku‘u Stories, Part 4: Tutu Meleana & The Puhi


Inside A Lava Tube

Richard Ha writes:

Back in the ‘80s, there was a fire in Maku‘u between Hawaiian Paradise Park and Hawaiian Beaches. It burned all the way down to the ocean.

I used to do a lot of dirt bike riding back then with my brother-in-law Dennis Vierra and Wayne Blyth. When the fire was out, they made some roads around the perimeter, and any excuse to ride the bikes, right? We went exploring. 

We went in by an old hunter’s trail that started near the Maku’u farmers market, and we saw something really strange. There were all these really tall trees that weren’t burned. They were green, and really tall. They were growing through a hole in the lava, and it turned out it was the entrance to a lava tube—the top had collapsed and the trees had grown on top of it. It collapsed a long time ago, because those trees were huge.

We went to explore and we found an entrance into that lava tube that was set up with rocks and nice stone work. Somebody had gone to a lot of trouble to fix it really nicely so you could walk into it, but not too many people at once. Maybe so people couldn’t attack it. Or in case someone was guarding the entrance?We thought it was neat and decided to go back again the next week when we would bring flashlights.

So we went back a week later with our mountain bikes and brought gloves and flashlights and we went into the cave, and it was pretty interesting. The first thing we saw were enormous ‘opihi shells. I’ve never in my life seen ‘opihi shells that size come out of the ocean there in Puna. They were bigger around than a coffee cup. Maybe half again bigger. There were quite a lot of them. And we saw charcoal, so it looked like people had made fires there.

We started walking. The cave was maybe ten or fifteen feet high in places. The top had collapsed over time and there was a pile of rubble maybe three or four feet high in the middle, so you had to walk on either side of it.

It wasn’t perfectly round, but it got narrow on the left and right edges and looked like there were shelves, like you could set things there, or maybe hide bodies there, but none of us said that out loud. And we didn’t dare go look.

We kept walking, maybe about a mile and then we came to what looked like a dry waterfall. The shape of the lava went uphill and we could feel fresh air at the top, so we climbed up and kept going.

Toward the end, we found more rock work. At that end, only one person at a time could pass through the narrow opening someone had created rocks. It led to an opening at the top so we could leave the lava tube, and we came out in the forest.

We had absolutely no idea where we were. No idea at all. It was still light out but we had no way to find civilization.

It was pitch dark in the lava tube, but we knew that was the only way we could find our way back, so we went back in. We went back the way we’d come and we started going faster and faster, because it was kind of spooky in there.

About halfway through we realized we could see some diffused light coming from the ceiling. There was a hole in the ceiling where the lava was very thin.

And what occurred to me was that if anyone was walking in the forest above and fell through into the lava tube, they would have absolutely no way of finding their way out. Without a flashlight, it’s pitch dark and you absolutely wouldn’t be able to find your way out at all. That would just be it. It was a scary thought.

I don’t know if it’s a place where people used to hide. Or was it a burial cave? How many hundreds of years ago was that? I couldn’t see any evidence of people having lived in that area – no taro lo‘i or anything. There were no trails there. Who built that stone work? Who did all that work? It was very organized. Was it to protect themselves? Did they have people out there at the entrances?

We only went into it that one time, and it’s still out there somewhere, between Pahoa and Ainaloa on the transfer station side of the highway, and I’m sure there are many others, too. I hadn’t thought about that in many years, but now with all the lava moving through the area and going down into cracks and everything, it came to mind. It was an interesting experience.

From Big Island Video News:

PUNA, Hawaii – Lava is a mere three tenths of a mile from entering Kaohe Homesteads, reports Hawaii County Civil Defense. An evacuation has not yet been ordered for residents of Kaohe but that could change at any time. Civil Defense personnel will be conducting door to door surveys and notification in the subdivision starting today.

Read the rest


Will Home-Grown Bananas Become a Memory?

Richard Ha writes:

Incidents of Banana Bunchy Top Virus (BBTV) have been increasing in this past year.

Fortunately, the Department of Agriculture has filled the slot that became open when Kyle Onuma retired. Kyle did an incredible job with the resources he had.

Now Kamran Fujimoto has been placed in Kyle’s slot. He is good! It’s been just a few weeks since Kamran came on board, and he’s already treated 14 BBTV sites in the Hilo area, consisting of 38 banana clumps and 167 infected plants.

This video describes the disease, and the method of control.

“Three Minutes on Banana Bunch Top Virus: What You Need to Know”

Once the Hilo area is done, Kamran will turn his attention to the Kea‘au/Puna area. The BIBGA will help Kamran do a survey of the subdivisions. We will be sure to notify the community associations to coordinate.

Also, the Big Island Banana Growers is planning an education
program about the virus. It will consist of printed materials, social media, County Fair info and working with people who supply or sell banana plants. If you see an infected plant, call the Department of Agriculture at 974-4145.

People seeking banana keiki should make sure that the source
is not infected. Be especially careful when sourcing from the Kea‘au/Puna area. We are finding that many new infected plantings are originating from there.

Our approach is a collaborative one, and we are very grateful to homeowners who have been willing to help us. This is not only beneficial to commercial growers – if we work hard at eradication, homeowners will be able to continue raising bananas. If not, bananas will become very hard to grow at home.

O‘ahu is a good example of runaway BBTV in neighborhoods. Commercial growers are still growing bananas there, but for some homeowners, growing their own bananas is becoming only a memory.

This video, “Bananas at Risk in Kea‘au, Hawai‘i,” was taken just a short time ago, but the land has been bulldozed since.

The plants there must be eradicated, though, or the land will continue to serve as a reservoir from which BBTV can be spread.


The Lamakū Project

Richard Ha writes:

I want to tell you what’s new. The Big Island Community Coalition (BICC), in partnership with ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, is kicking off the Lamakū Adopt-a-Visit project.

Download Adopt a Visit Program_2013_brochure

Lamakū means “torch of light.” This project will sponsor Puna and Ka‘ū students to go on a field trip to ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo. 

Here’s how it works: You make a 100 percent tax-deductible donation to ‘Imiloa, specifying that it’s in support of the BICC “Adopt-a-Visit” project. (You can specify that it’s for a certain Puna or Ka‘ū school if you’d like, but that’s optional.)

Each $5 donation sponsors one student. Public, private, charter and homeschooled students are eligible.

Donations will be applied to the ‘Imiloa admission fee.  As long as funds are available, ‘Imiloa will cover the cost of bus transportation to the Center. ‘Imiloa will coordinate the school visits, and will ensure that the donor receives feedback about the trip to ‘Imiloa they helped sponsor.

Eighty-nine percent of students in the Pahoa school complex participate in the free/reduced lunch program. This is the highest percentage in the state.

This is an opportunity to make a real difference on the ground. Thanks for your help.

How to donate


Testimony to OHA Supporting Geothermal

Richard Ha writes:

OHA is contemplating investing in geothermal. I am in favor of that, for the reasons that I mention below.

I sent the following testimony to OHA:


Subject:  OHA testimony re: Huena Power Co/IDG

April 17, 2013

Office of Hawaiian Affairs
711 Kapiolani St.
Honolulu, HI  96813

Aloha Chair Machado and Board members of OHA:

The Geothermal working group report, which Wallace Ishibashi and I co-chaired, recommended that geothermal be the primary base power for the Big Island. OHA was represented on the working group by trustee Robert Lindsey.

I believe that OHA should participate in geothermal development because it is an income source for OHA to provide services to the Hawaiian people. And it can influence the course of our people’s history.

Geothermal-generated electricity is proven technology, affordable and environmentally benign. The Big Island is expected to be over the “hot spot” for 500,000 to a million years so its price is expected to be stable.

The Pahoa School Complex in Puna, at 89%, has the highest number of students in the State who participate in the free/reduced school lunch program. Participation is related to family income. The Big Island has had electricity rates 25% higher than O‘ahu’s for as long as anyone can remember. So a large portion of the school budget, that should go to education, goes instead to pay for electricity. Yet the best predictor of family income is education. A lower electricity rate, generated by geothermal, will have a direct effect on education. And if OHA, through its influence, emphasizes education in the community, there will be even more positive results.

Rising electricity rates act like a giant regressive tax. The folks on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder are affected disproportionately. Those who can leave the grid, leave. Those who cannot leave end up paying more for the grid. Too often those folks will be Hawaiians.

Hawaiians should be able to live in their own land. Yet there are more Hawaiians living outside of the State, because they needed to move elsewhere to find jobs to raise their families. Exporting our children is the same as losing our land. OHA is in a position to drive the agenda so Hawaiians can afford to live at home.

During the development of the Geothermal Working Group report, Rockne Freitas arranged a meeting with Carl Bonham, Executive Director of the University of Hawai‘i Economic Research Organization (UHERO), and some staff.

I asked Dr. Bonham two key questions: “Is it fair to say that if the Big Island were to rely on geothermal energy for its primary base power as oil prices rises, shouldn’t we become more competitive to the rest of the world?” He said that was fair to say.

I asked: “Then is it fair to say that our standard of living would rise?” He said: “Yes.”

I am a farmer on the Hamakua coast with family ties — Kamahele — in lower Puna. I farmed bananas at Koa‘e in the late 70s and early 80s. I have been to five Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) conferences. I went to learn and to position my business for the future. I found that the world has been using two and three times the amount of oil than it has been finding for more than 30 years and that trend continues. The price of oil has quadrupled in the last 10 years.

Until the first ASPO conference, I was just minding my own business, being a banana farmer. But what I learned became my kuleana. I did not ask for it.

Until last year, when Kamehameha Schools sent Giorgio Calderone and Jason Jeremiah and Noe Kalipi went to the conference, I was the only person from Hawai‘i to attend. The subjects were always data driven and conclusions could be duplicated.

We have the resources here to dodge the bullet. We need to drive a clear agenda for the benefit of all the people, not just a few.

One of the controversial issues in the Puna district is H2S gas. I went to Iceland and sat in the Blue Lagoon, where a geothermal plant within a quarter mile emits geothermal steam into the atmosphere. Millions of tourists visit the Blue Lagoon for health purposes.

There are small geothermal wells within the city that are used to heat the residences and businesses. If you did not know what to look for, you wouldn’t even know they were there. I walked by and touched the walls.

A long term study of the effects of H2S on people who suffer from asthma was just completed. It was done in Rotorua. They found no correlation of asthma to daily ambient H2S levels of 20,000 parts per billion over a three-year period. The study indicated that there might be a beneficial effect because it relaxes the smooth muscles. See link above.

The human nose can detect levels of H2S at incredibly low levels: 5 parts per billion. The Department of Health requires reporting when levels exceed 25 parts per billion. The Rotorua study was done for three years at average levels that were 20,000 parts per billion. OSHA allows geothermal plant workers to work in a 10,000 parts per billion environment for 8 hours per day without a mask.

Wallace Ishibashi and I went to the Philippines with the delegation that Mayor Kenoi put together. We visited a geothermal plant that sat on a volcano that last erupted 100,000 years ago. Mauna Kea last erupted 4,000 years ago. We may have more resources than we know.

The Phillipines and Hawai‘i started geothermal exploration at the same time. They now have in excess of 1,200MW, while we have 38MW. We are so far behind them, a supposedly Third World country, that it is embarrassing.

OHA is in a unique position to be able to influence the future. It is as if we are getting ready to duplicate that first voyage from the south so many years ago. It’s not whether or not we are going. It’s who should go, and what should we put in the canoes? Mai‘a maoli? Popoulu? What else?

Richard Ha
President, Mauna Kea Banana Company

I am a member of the Hawaii Clean Energy Steering Committee, Board of Agriculture and farmer for 35 years.


How To Dramatically Increase Big Island School Budgets

Richard Ha writes:

Because the Big Island pays 25 percent more for its electricity than O‘ahu does, it follows that Big Island schools have 25 percent less of their budgets available to pay teachers than O‘ahu’s schools. Did you ever think about it this way?

Some Big Island school complexes (an area’s elementary, middle and high school) are paying around $1 million/year just for electricity. As compared with O‘ahu, that’s around $250,000/year that isn’t going toward teachers and other education services. At $70K per teacher, that could be three full time-teachers, for instance.

On top of the Big Island having paid 25 percent more for its electricity than O‘ahu for as long as anyone can remember, our Puna district has one of the lowest median family incomes in the state.

And what’s the best predictor of family income? Level of education. Therefore, one of many benefits of cheaper electricity is that a lot more of our schools’ money would go toward educating our children. Lowering the cost of electricity would allow Puna schools more resources to focus on teachers and learning, and it follows that this could lead to increased median family incomes.

Geothermal done in a responsible manner can lower the cost of electricity. But we all must work together. It’s great that HELCO is moving forward with low-cost alternatives, such as calling for requests for proposals for expanding geothermal production.

There are a thousand reasons why NO CAN. We only need to find the one reason why CAN!


Health & Safety re: Geothermal in Puna

I was very encouraged at the County Council meeting on geothermal that was held in Pahoa this last Tuesday evening. The community had a chance to be heard.

The Puna community met several times prior to that meeting, and Steve Hirakami, acting as facilitator, identified the community’s main concerns. About 100 votes indicated that the Pele cultural issue was a top concern. Non-Hawaiians taking this position vastly outnumber Hawaiians. Seventy to 80 folks listed health and safety as their top issues.

From the testimony at Tuesday’s meeting, it is clear that the Puna community feels uneasy about geothermal. I understand that the Environmental Committee, chaired by Councilwoman Brittany Smart, will be holding hearings regarding environmental issues – specifically health and safety. The hearings will bring clarity to the issues.

What we do know right now is the State Department of Health does not allow open venting, and requires they be alerted when emissions exceed 25 parts per billion. Note that personal H2S monitors sold on the Internet measure in “parts per million.” A billion is a thousand million. The Department of Health’s requirement is a very conservative one.


Hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide coming out of the ground at the Sulfur Banks at Volcano, Hawai‘i

I commend Mayor Kenoi for initiating the Sister City relations with Ormoc City and for supporting the Geothermal Working Group, which was operating under an unfunded mandate. He has taken on the goal of making Hawaii County 100 percent reliant on non-fossil fuels by 2015.

That’s a high bar, but he has the guts to aim high. What’s at stake requires us to have a clear goal, for the benefit of all of us. Mayor Kenoi knows that geothermal will result in a better future for us all.

Patrick Kahawaiola‘a, President of the Keaukaha Community Association, told me, “It is about the process” – and so we need to aloha everyone, no matter what side of the issue they are on. And Kumu Lehua Veincent told me: “What about the rest?” He meant that this is about all of us, not just a few.

We all know that oil prices have doubled every 5.5 years recently. If it continues to follow that pattern, we do not have much time to act. We must all work together to find the best solution for all of us.

I visited both Iceland and the Philippines, and in both places open venting is allowed at their geothermal plants in certain circumstances. I learned that Hawai‘i’s air quality standards are very high compared to in those countries.

In August 2000, the EPA issued a report regarding the geothermal well blowout that occurred at Puna Geothermal Venture in June 1991. Read “Report on the Review of Hawaii County Emergency Operations Plan and Puna Geothermal Venture Emergency Response Plan” here. The Environmental Committee can use these findings and recommendations as a starting point.

From that report:

Blowout of well KS-8 June 12, 1991

Cause and Duration

“The blowout caused an unabated release of steam for a period of 31 hours before PGV succeeded in closing in the well. The report finds that the blowout occurred because of inadequacies in PGV’s drilling plan and procedures and not as a result of unusual or unmanageable subsurface geologic or hydrologic conditions.”

“Not only did PGV fail to modify its drilling program following the KS-7 blowout, but they also failed to heed numerous “red flags” (warning signals) in the five days preceding the KS-8 blowout, which included a continuous 1-inch flow of drilling mud out of the wellbore, gains in mud volume while pulling stands, and gas entries while circulating mud bottom up, in addition to lost circulation, that had occurred earlier below the shoe of the 13-3/8-inch casing.”

“PGV personnel took appropriate steps to control the well following the kick. However, there were certain inadequacies in PGV’s drilling operations and blowout prevention equipment. The mud cooler being used was inefficient. Monitoring equipment was not strategically placed. A sufficient supply of cold water was not available to pump into the wellbore to properly kill the well in the event of a blowout. The choke line was not of sufficient diameter to handle the volume of fluid that had to be vented, and there was no silencer on the end of the choke manifold line to reduce noise.”

It’s good that the County Council will be addressing all those issues. We all need to have a common frame of reference regarding safety. Everyone wants to do the right thing.


Surfboards For Skibs & His Aloha Spirit

Richard Ha writes:

Yesterday I received an email. The East Hawai‘i Cultural Center was looking for Bradda Skibs, because someone had donated 10 surfboards for his program. 

I know Skibs and I wrote about his great "malama ka ‘aina" program before.

I said that what Brudda Skibs is doing is "a manifestation of 'aloha spirit.'"

"This is what is going to keep us together as a society when push comes to shove," he says. "We need to feel a part of our community, make more friends and stay close to our family."

“What we’re doing is real,” says Skibs. “We could change this island. We’re doing it already. That’s our job right now – the future of our children."

Skibs and I are both great-great-great grandsons of Kamahele Nui of Puna.