The response we've been getting from the community since we stopped producing tomatoes has been absolutely overwhelming. We did not expect it.
We knew people liked our Hamakua Springs tomatoes, but none of us anticipated the extent or amount of comments we've been getting. It's really been unbelievable.
I recently got a note about our tomatoes from a couple in Kailua, on O‘ahu, and I wanted to share it with you. I'm posting it here with their permission:
Dear Richard and June Ha, I read with great dismay that you will no longer be growing tomatoes due to the age of your hydroponic equipment. I don’t know how others feel about this, but my husband and I adored your tomatoes and will be very sad to be without them in the future. I have a suggestion that you may not have considered. I know that I would be more than willing to donate money towards a new system. I imagine that there are others who feel the same way we do and would do likewise.
Is it worth your time to make a plea to the public for funds, stating the goal and having a chart indicating how close you are to that goal? Would the newspaper support your goal and put the information in a box on the front page, keeping track of the progress as well as keeping the public aware of your need? If there was a bank account or some such place to send funds, you might just receive enough to update your equipment and be back in the tomato business. It is so sad to see HI become more dependent on imported food rather than less, as should be the goal. Anyhow, this has been on my mind since the article was published. I contacted the reporter who said he would pass along the information, but I just had to see if you were even considering the idea. Thank you for listening.
That was very nice of them. I had to tell them that we've passed the point of no return at this point. The problem is that costs have gone up, but the energy that drives tomato production – the sun – has not gone up.
I haven’t mentioned this yet, but we have been phasing out production of our tomatoes.
This came about because of what I’ve been saying here for years: The price of oil has raised farming costs substantially. The pluses of growing our hydroponic tomatoes were no longer exceeding the minuses.
When we started growing tomatoes back in 2002, we had been banana growers. Oil prices were low and banana prices were also low; it was hard to make a living that way. We needed to diversify, which is one of the reasons we went into tomatoes. It was a good decision.
But costs have been increasing drastically, and our tomato growing infrastructure is getting old and will start falling apart soon, so we had to make a decision. Do we take it apart and rebuild the tomato houses? Or do we replace them? Replacing them would cost an eye-opening three times what it cost 12 years ago when we put them up.
It’s a real-life consequence of what I keep saying here: The price of oil is four times higher than it was 10 years ago and there are significant consequences. Everything costs so much more now. We are in the middle of major changes and most people don’t even realize it.
We took into account that our customers are under increasing economic pressure, as well—meaning they have less disposable income—and that our tomatoes are a high-end product. We also knew, as we made this decision, that oil and other costs are expected to keep rising.
Our plan had always been to take our tomato farming to the next step, which would have been to leverage our excess hydroelectricity in a controlled environment that allowed us to exclude insects and optimize light and temperature. Unfortunately, it just took too long to get our hydro plant operating.
It’s been a very difficult decision, and one that we’ve been carefully considering and making for quite some time, taking not only all these conditions into account but also our next generation. As hard as it’s been to make this decision, we all agreed it was the right thing to do. It allows us to continue farming.
We’re definitely not closing up shop; just refocusing our farming efforts based on economic factors.
We will stay in bananas. They do well in our rain and deep soil and other conditions. The banana infrastructure we have in place, such as the coolers and concrete, is good for another 20 years. The pluses exceed the minuses.
I continue to be very interested in producing a cost-effective protein source here on the farm, such as tilapia and other fish. We are currently working on the problems of protein feed and oxygenation of water, which we can do with gravity and electricity. We’re always thinking about where we need to be in 10 or 20 years.
And I’ll let you know what other interesting projects crop up along the way.
In the meantime, you’ll see our Hamakua Springs Country Farms tomatoes until the end of November; that’s when the last of them will come off the vines, go through our packing houses, and hit the supermarkets.
We thank you for supporting, and enjoying, our tomatoes all these years.
The cocktail tomato flowers were for a hands-on demo where kids learned about putting a tomato flower in sterile culture and growing their own tomato. They practiced removing flower petals with their fingers, and then saw how the scientists prepare the flowers under sterile conditions using forceps to remove the petals. The scientists put the flowers into a tissue culture and let the kids take them home and observe them developing into green tomatoes and then ripening.
It was the Ms. Foundation for Women (with support from foundation founder Gloria Steinem) who started “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day” back in 1992; it started out as “Take Our Daughters to Work Day.” Sons were added in 2003. More than 37 million people participate every year at more than 3.5 million workplaces in the U.S., and there are more participants in over 200 other countries. Pretty impressive numbers!
Exposing girls and boys to what a parent or mentor in their lives does during the work day is important, but showing them the value of their education, helping them discover the power and possibilities associated with a balanced work and family life, providing them an opportunity to share how they envision the future, and allowing them to begin steps toward their end goals in a hands-on and interactive environment is key to their achieving success.
PBARC participates once every three years, inviting employees to bring their children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren. Each child, too, can bring a friend.
Scientists set up displays and demos, usually hands-on, to demonstrate aspects of research and agriculture. Some of this year’s sessions had kids learning how to extract purple pigment from “red” cabbage, how to detect whether papaya seeds were genetically modified for ring spot virus, and drafting hibiscus cuttings. There was a short “genomic number cruncher” session, too.
“For the most part they are very engaged,” said research horticulturalist Tracie Matsumoto. “We keep the displays short, less than 30 minutes, and hands-on. One year we had a dead baby pig that we set up outside three weeks before the event, so the kids got to see the maggots and decaying carcass. That same entomologist who did that also set up a colony of sweet potato weevils one year, where the kids could put their arms in and let them crawl on their arms. Another year, we were extracting banana DNA and the kids got to take home DNA in a test tube.”
Because the facility recognizes that not every child wants to be a scientist, they also show the kids around all the other PBARC departments, so they see the various jobs that keep the facility going. They hear what the duties are for employees in administration, computer networking, janitorial and landscaping, payroll and purchasing. They learn that it takes more than just scientists to keep that operation going.
“We know students over the course of their lives are going to have multiple jobs and bosses and maybe careers, too, so we like to expand their expectations of what careers could be,” said Suzanne Sanxter, a biological laboratory technician and coordinator of the Daughters and Sons program.
Over the years, about 175 children between the ages of 7 and 18 have attended a PBARC Daughters and Sons event. This year there were 20 more, and all were asked to fill out surveys at the end of the day. PBARC must have really done something right, because each demo was listed as more than one students’ favorite, and reviews were glowing. A sampling:
How was your day at PBARC?
Awesome and super fun, because we got to do a lot of things.
It was the best and I wish there was more but I can’t wait for the next time I get to go.
What did you like the best?
I liked all of it, it was really fun the one that I liked the most was the tomatoe one and the calerpiler.
All the subjects
Going upstairs to see the wires.
What did you like the least?
I loved all of it. All of them was really fun. I do not have any dislikes.
What experiment would you like to do next year?
The experiment that I would want to do is the calipilier one, the tomatoe and the planting one in the patiow.
Looking in the microscope.
What would you like to learn more about – plants or insects?
What I would want to learn more is witch plant or fruit and inscect is the most endangered.
How many years does a lemitoad (nematode ?!) stay alive.
The state's Committee on Agriculture hearing was today, and they approved the governor's nominating me for a second term on the Board of Agriculture. It was a unanimous vote. The next step is that the nomination will go to the full Senate.
I told the committee that my role on the board will be to encourage food security, which involves farmers farming, and if the farmers make money the farmers will farm. There are two parts to that, I said: lowering the farmers' costs, and lowering the farmers' customers' costs. I said that energy and agriculture are inextricably tied together, and that we have natural resources that can lower farmers' costs as well as farmers' customers' costs.
Also, Senator Ruderman asked to meet with me today, and we had a good talk. He apologized for his choice of words, and I accepted his apology. I told him I understand, and that these things happen and I didn't take it personally.
He said, "I'm still buying your tomatoes, you know," meaning for his natural foods stores. I told him, "I know."
He was under the mistaken impression that I am anti-organic, and I told him that by no stretch of the imagination am I anti-organic. I think we need all farmers as we go into our uncertain future and try to feed everybody. I told him I would be an advocate for organic farmers on this board, actually.
He told me if I grew organic tomatoes, he'd pay me more for them, and I said I would look into it.
We discussed that we should be talking with each other more, to seek common ground, and I told him I'm more than happy to do that. I think we can start to have a civil conversation, respect each other and try to figure out where we want to take the Big Island in the future.
After we talked, I said, "So, you going to still buy my tomatoes or what?" We had a good laugh. It was a good meeting and I was happy with it.
I always come back to the most important thing we need to take into the future is the spirit of aloha. I feel that very strongly.
The other day Richard gave some of us a tour of Hamakua Springs Country Farms in Pepe‘ekeo, and its new hydroelectric plant, and wow. I hadn’t been out to the farm for awhile, and it was so interesting to ride around the 600 acres with Richard and see all that’s going on there these days.
Most of what I realized (again) that afternoon fell into two
broad categories: That Richard really is a master of seeing the big picture, and that everything he does is related to that big picture.
Hamakua Springs, which started out growing bananas and then expanded into growing the deliciously sweet hydroponic tomatoes we all know the farm for, has other crops as well.
These days there are farmers leasing small plots where they are growing taro, corn, ginger and sweet potato. These farmers’ products go to the Hamakua Springs packing house and Hamakua Springs distributes them, which speaks to Richard’s goal of providing a place for local farmers to farm, wherethere is water and packing and distribution already in place.
The water wasn’t running through there the day we were there because they’d had to temporarily “turn it off” – divert the water – in order to fix something, but we could see how the water from an old plantation flume now runs through the headworks and through a pipe and into the turbine, which is housed in a blue shipping container.
This is where the electricity is generated, and I was interested to see a lone electric pole standing there next to the system. End of the line! Or start of the line, really, as that’s where the electricity from the turbine is carried to. And from there, it works its way across the electric lines stretched between new poles reaching across the land.
He asked the children who were along with us for their ideas
about how to landscape around the hydroelectric area, and also where the water leaves the turbine to run out and rejoin the stream.
“We could do anything here,” he said, asking for thoughts, and
we all came up with numerous ideas, some fanciful. Trees and grass? A taro lo‘i? Maybe a picnic area, or a water flume ride or a demonstration garden or fishponds?
There are interesting plans for once the hydro system is operating, including a certified kitchen where local area producers can bring their products and create value-added goods.
Other plans include having some sort of demo of sustainable
farming, and perhaps ag-tourism ativities like walking trails going through the farm, and maybe even a B&B. “The basis of all tourism,” he said, “is sustainability.”
Hamakua Springs is also experimenting with growing mushrooms
now, and looking into several other possibilities for using its free
As we stopped and looked at the streams we kept coming
across, which ran under the old plantation roads we drove upon, Richard made an observation that I found interesting. In the Hawaiian way, the land is thought of as following the streams down from mountain to sea. In traditional ways, paths generally ran up-and-down the hill, following the shape of the ahupua‘a.
“But look at the plantation roads,” he said, and he pointed
out how they run across the land, from stream to stream. The plantation way was the opposite. Not “wrong” – just different.
Richard has plans to plant bamboo on the south sides of the
streams, which will keep the water cool and keep out invasive species.
At the farm, they continue to experiment with raising
tilapia, which are in four blue pools next to the reservoir.
June with a full net
The pools are at different heights because they are using gravity to flow the water from one pool to the next, rather than a pump. Besides it being free, this oxygenates the water as it falls into the next pool. They are not raising the fish commercially at present, but give them to their workers.
Everything that Richard does is geared toward achieving the same goal, and that is to keep his farm economically viable and sustainable.
The hydroelectric system means saving thousands per month in
electric bills, and being able to expand into other products and activities. It means the farm stays in business and provides for the surrounding community. It means people have jobs.
When he says “rubbah slippah folk,” Richard told me, he’s always thinking first about the farm’s workers.
This, by the way, is really a great overview of how Richard describes the “big picture.” It’s a TEDx talk he did awhile back (17 minutes). Really worth a look.
It was so interesting to see firsthand what is going on at the farm right now, and hear about the plans and the wheres and whyfors. Thank you, Richard, for a really interesting and insightful afternoon.
Over the weekend, Scott Bosshardtof Kea‘au had an important letter to the editor of the Hawaii Tribune-Herald.
His point was that products produced and purchased locally shouldn’t be more expensive than the same product purchased abroad.
One extremely important fact that the “Think Local, Buy Local” proponents shouldn’t overlook is that local businesses need to “price local.”
Products produced and purchased locally shouldn’t be more expensive than the same product purchased abroad.
He also wrote:
“Price local” instead of as if our Big Island-grown tomatoes and coconuts were imported from half way around the world or some other planet, then people will be much more inclined to “buy local.” This holds true for everything we produce here. Think about it. When you live in Columbia, you don’t pay more for coffee than you do in San Francisco.
He’s right: Prices are higher here, and we need to lower them. It’s what I keep talking about. We need to find a way that we can lower our costs.
I first noticed our farm costs rising steadily back in 2005 and 2006. Rising costs affect every aspect of our farm, and it was very worrisome. Looking into it, I realized that the rise in price was due to the price of oil increasing.
Here in Hawai‘i, we are being squeezed extra hard. More than 70 percent of our electricity comes from oil. Compare this to the U.S. mainland – Hawaii’s primary competitor in many produce and food manufacturing categories – which relies on oil for only about two percent of its electricity generation.
As the price of oil rises, you can see how our local farmers and food manufacturers become less and less competitive with the mainland.
Farming is very energy intensive, and farmers’ refrigeration and water pumping costs have steadily gotten more expensive. Wholesalers’ and retailer refrigeration costs have gone up, too. This means food costs more.
Oil prices have quadrupled in the last 10 years, and this has put the economy into a continuous recession. Everything has been squeezed. Government workers’ pay has been cut. Electricity costs have gone up steadily. School budgets have been squeezed. Medical costs have risen.
I have so far attended five annual Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) conferences trying to figure out how to protect our farm from the rising price of oil. I don’t have a degree in chemistry or the sciences – but I am a farmer with common sense. So I spent my time figuring out who I can trust for good information
I determined that the folks at ASPO can be trusted because they have no other agenda than to produce good information. It is up to me to decide if their studies are valid or not, or whether I agree with their conclusion. On the other hand, I thought that people whose livelihood depends on putting on a happy face would probably just put on a happy face.
I have learned that the world has been using two to three times as much oil as it has been finding, a trend that continues. I’ve learned that the oil being produced now is much more expensive than what they found 50 years ago. It takes more energy now to get the energy. The cost of producing oil from shale and oil sands was $92 per barrel in 2011, and the floor price of oil is probably not much lower than that.
The era of cheap oil is over. And the stuff produced in the future will be even more costly, setting a higher floor as time goes by. Unless we do something, it will squeeze us all even more.
Look around: It is happening right now, even with a banner tourism year. Imagine what it will be like if we have a significant downturn.
Also important to note is that the rubbah slippah folks have less and less discretionary income. Consumer spending makes up two-thirds of our economy. Our consumers will have more spending money when we can lower the cost of our electricity.
What about the happy news that the U.S. will become the largest producer of oil and gas in the future? In 2009, Art Berman, a petroleum geologist, showed that in a study of 4,000 gas wells in the Barnett Shale, most of the production came out in the first year. Sixteen-thousand wells later, we see that 90 percent of shale gas and shale oil wells were more than 90 percent depleted within five years. And the decline rate for all the wells is more than 30 percent. We will need to drill one third as many we have now just to keep production steady.
One can reasonably conclude that the shale gas and shale oil phenomenon may not be a game changer. It probably won’t make a large dent in world oil production.
Meanwhile, the overall trend continues. Most of the world’s oil is produced by giant and supergiant oil fields, and lots of them are declining. Folks who study this estimate that the decline rate is around 4 to 6 percent annually. That is about 3 million barrels a year. This is going on all day, every day, no matter what the stock market does.
What can we do on the Big Island to lower electricity costs, and the cost of locally produced food? Biomass and geothermal can do that today. There may be other choices maturing in the next few years, too.
Producing electricity from geothermal here costs half as much as producing it from oil. And the Big Island will be over the hot spot that provides us with geothermal for 500,000 to a million years.
Iceland is pulling itself out of the largest financial crash in history because it has cheap electricity from geothermal and can export fish.
Let’s say that one wanted to payoff an oil-fired plant that produces 60MW today. That difference in price would save $6,600/hour and $158,400 /day. This is more than $50 million per year. Seems like we could be creative with writing off stranded assets.
A bunch of things are happening right now. They look very different, but see if you notice what they all have in common.
We are just seeing the tomatoes start to produce more in spite of the dark, wet weather. It’s the third week of February; and last year, too, our tomatoes’ rate of production started climbing in the third week of February. That gives me a good feeling, because I’d been looking around and anticipating this.
All around I see growth. Avocado trees everywhere are choke with flowers right now. The ‘ulu are starting to develop on the tree; the ones I’m watching are about baseball size right now. Everything’s growing and producing around us.
We spent Saturday in Kona at a get-together for Armstrong Produce and its farmers. We stayed there for several hours, talking story with everybody.
I was sitting next to Timothy Choo, a chef from Sodexho, which does food service for UH Hilo. Sodexho is a huge supporter of local products, they go out of their way to buy locally, and we had a big conversation about it. Sodexho is supplied by Suisan, also a big supporter of local products.
I was also talking to Troy Keolanui, manager of OK Farms. Ed Olson owns that farm, 200 acres of many kinds of fruit and other trees, and we help distribute their produce under our Hilo Coast brand.
They are located behind Rainbow Falls, and they have a tent, with chairs in it, where they can sit and look at the falls. They purposely set it up behind some bushes so it doesn’t disrupt the more common view of Rainbow Falls, the one that tourists look at every day.
Then we drove back to this side of the island and went straight
to Puna. Chef Alan Wong was there, and he was throwing a small dinner for the farmers he buys from here.
Alan Wong and I started talking about the Adopt-A-Class project. I
said, “Why don’t we do a broader Adopt-A-Class project this time, in Puna. We’ll take the whole district and go to each of the schools there, including the charter schools. Everywhere there are elementary school kids.”
Then yesterday, the folks from Zippy’s came by the farm. They’re going to open up a restaurant at Prince Kuhio Plaza soon and we’ll be supplying some of their products. Zippy’s has a strong “support local” program. When you go into any Zippy’s restaurant, you always see signs about which farms they get some of their products from. Zippy’s also uses local beef. It’s a corporate decision to support local growers.
Do you see the common link among all these things? Everybody’s coming at it from a different point-of-view, but the common
denominator is that we are so lucky to live here in Hawai‘i!
It’s all about local food and making ourselves food-secure. Our tomatoes are thriving and plentiful; where else in the country can you grow tomatoes throughout the winter? Other food is growing all around us.
Armstrong Produce distributes the products of many local farmers and producers. So does Suisan. Sodexo buy that local food.
And Alan Wong, too, is very interested in supporting local farmers and teaching local school kids. He’s very aware of the movement to be self-sustaining and is always reaching out to teach kids about where they come from, how their parents used to live and how we can live now. He’s all about helping people be grounded, and he comes at it with the training of a very high-level chef.
People are really helping each other out. Everybody has to make money, but they’re looking after the next person in the chain. If you’re the farmer, you’re hoping that your wholesaler is caring about you and not just the retailers. Everybody is look after everybody else.
It’s the only way I can figure out that we can help our own workers. Because, of everyone, who’s going to protect the workers? I’ve got to do everything I can to protect them.
There’s a big circle of sustainability around us, and it’s one that’s getting bigger and bigger. It’s really incredible, though it’s easy to get caught up in our busy lives and forget to notice.
When I went to pick up Professor Charles A.S. Hall and his wife Myrna at the airport Wednesday, I noticed a plane that looked like Air Force One. It reminded me that President Obama and his family are on O‘ahu for vacation.
A long day of Hawaiian golf on Wednesday gave President Obama an appetite for dinner at what is regarded as his favorite island fine dining establishment: Alan Wong’s Restaurant in Honolulu. The chef himself told Obama Foodorama last month that he was expecting a visit from the President and First Lady Obama during their Christmas vacation.
“They’re adventurous eaters,” Wong said of the Obamas. The acclaimed chef, who sources locally and sustainably for his modern Hawaiian cuisine, cooked the special APEC Leaders Dinner the President and Mrs. Obama hosted in late November at the Hale Koa Hotel in Honolulu….
We select our tomato varieties specifically for taste, and once we find a variety that tastes delicious, then we look at its other characteristics. For instance, we do not grow white varieties, because we have not found one that tastes good.
Once we find a variety we like, we control salinity and water volume to enhance its taste even more.
It is interesting to read what has happened to tomato taste over the years.
WASHINGTON, June 29 (UPI) — The reason bright, uniformly red tomatoes in supermarkets lack the flavor to match their intense color is genetics, U.S. plant researchers say.
A gene mutation that makes a tomato uniformly red, favored by farmers as it produces a visually attractive product, stifles genes that would contribute to its taste, scientists said.
The chance mutation discovered by tomato breeders has been deliberately bred into almost all tomatoes for the color it provides.
Researchers writing in the journal Science report the gene that was inactivated by that mutation — resulting in a brighter uniform color — plays an important role in producing the sugar and aromas that are central to a flavorful tomato. Read the rest
And here’s another interesting article on the same subject from NPR:
Notice how some of these tomatoes have unripe-looking tops? Those “green shoulders” are actually the keys to flavor.
The tomato is the vegetable (or fruit, if you must) that we love to hate. We know how good it can be and how bad it usually is. And everybody just wants to know: How did it get that way?
Today, scientists revealed a small but intriguing chapter in that story: a genetic mutation that seemed like a real improvement in the tomato’s quality, but which actually undermined its taste. Read the rest
We are great fans of heirloom tomatoes. They taste great. I like them simply sliced and chilled with sea salt – sometimes with mozzarella cheese.