Tag Archives: UH Manoa

What I Learned From My Uncle Sonny Kamahele

Richard Ha writes:

I reread some of my posts about my Uncle Sonny Kamahele recently. The most important things I learned about farming, I learned from him down at Maku‘u. I thought I’d revisit some of that here.


Science is great, but there are kids now that go to the supermarket and think that’s where food comes from.

For me, it all goes back to Uncle Sonny and all the layers of technology that have cropped up since then. Wheelbarrow

When I first thought about farming, I spent hours and hours talking to Uncle Sonny Kamahele down the beach at Maku‘u.

I’ve written about Uncle Sonny here and here. He was my Pop’s cousin, and I learned the basic principles of farming from him.

I had just graduated from UH Manoa with an accounting degree. I had cost benefit volume analysis and market share on my mind.

Uncle Sonny drove to town once a week. He did not have electricity or running water, but he always had a stack of U.S. News & World Reports with the current copy on top. He made his living farming watermelon by himself.

One day he told me that he needed to open up a new plot of land because he could not stay at the same place for too long; he didn’t want to get a virus or a wilt of some sort.

Over the days and weeks, I watched him cut grass in the new plot with a sickle and pull it into a roll, and then cart the grass out of his plot in a wheelbarrow. When he wasn’t doing that, he would take a hoe and remove the roots of the grass, because he knew that otherwise it would regrow.

The other types of weed were dormant seeds of broad-leaved weeds that would germinate and pop up. Uncle Sonny would remove these with a hoe, only on dry days, without disturbing too much of the soil. After awhile the seeds would stop germinating.

Uncle Sonny knew that certain weeds could continuously regrow if the roots were not removed, and that others only grew from seed. I noticed that, after awhile, hardly any weeds grew in the new plot, and I thought about how amazing that was.

The lessons I learned from Uncle Sonny? Know what your problem is. Also: no waste time.

My grandma Leihulu lived with us for several years as I was growing up in Waiakea Uka. She grew taro and made poi, and she did the same things as Uncle Sonny. She always had a stack of California grass smoldering, even when it was raining – they were weeds she’d removed the same way he did. It was second nature to her. It was just her lifestyle.

Whenever I see a plot of ground that’s clean like that, it’s pretty obvious to me that they did that with a hoe, and that that is somebody that knows what they’re doing.

As Uncle Sonny got older, he started using pesticides, but because they cost money he was very very careful with them. It saves that part where you have to go and hoe the weeds out and go and pull the seeds out. It saved him a lot of time. It wasn’t very many years later that he started to use Roundup.

When I started farming, we were using skull & crossbones types of poisons like Paraquat. When we switched to Roundup, we didn’t have to use that anymore. It made spraying herbicides so much safer for the farmer.

When you use a chemical like Roundup in conjunction with a 100-hp tractor, you can do 1000 times more than one human can do. That means you can produce that much more food.  But now that herbicides kill everything, you start losing that knowledge; you don’t have to know what the old guys knew.

When Uncle Sonny used herbicides, he always stuck the leaf into it and saw if it worked. If not, he’d add a little more.

He followed the instructions, but he never relied on the instructions for the final result. He knew the formula, but he checked to make sure the result was what he wanted. It showed me that he knew what he was doing. He knew why that particular spreader was in there, and checked the proportions for sure. Not that he doubted, but if he wanted it to work very well, he’d check it himself.

I haven’t seen anybody, not anybody, do that. But I think it was common knowledge with the old folks.

We are so far removed from our food now that we don’t really have a connection with why we’re doing what we’re doing. But we need the basic knowledge. You’ve got to know why you’re doing what you are doing.

More about Uncle Sonny:


Meeting in Tahoe about the Western Agenda

Richard Ha writes:

View of lake

I’m at Lake Tahoe at the Western Region meeting of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU). I’m attending as a Council for Agricultural Research, Extension, and Teaching (CARET) delegate; most of us are people in the ag industry.

Attending this meeting are deans of land-grant universities in the western U.S., and heads of their research, extension and teaching divisions. Back home, UH Manoa is a land-grant university.

View of lake

At the first session, there was a panel discussion about how we can work together to maximize the Land Grant Universities’ extension, research and teaching functions. Also participating were representatives from the Western Governors Association, the National Association of Counties’ western representative and the Western Council of State Governments. I felt like this was a good effort at maximizing scientific resources.

I raised my hand and said that the County of Hawai‘i passed an ordinance banning all new GMOs. I said that I had found the input of CTAHR scientists very valuable in the discussion, and asked if the government groups were concerned about this issue. Of course, they were.

Then we got into the heart of the meeting, the Western agenda, which is about fire, water, invasive species, and endangered species. We discussed issues and prioritized action items. Next we had the research, extension and teaching groups go over the priorities and add their perspectives.

My thoughts? There are lots of things taking place that most people have no idea about. There are a ton of research facilities and people at work tackling a number of issues. These folks are all dedicated people who are interested in the public good. And they all believe in science – you can’t just say it; you have to prove it. I like this approach. It keeps us from wasting time and scarce resources.

With all the high brain-powered people here, I think I will ask them questions about GMOs that people back home will be interested in.


Economics & a Hawaiian Way of Thinking

Richard Ha writes:

It’s not whether or not the energy is green; it’s the price of
the energy that matters.

High price energy results in people having less
discretionary income. We know this to be true in our gut.

Professor Charles A. S. Hall explains how this works using
the concept of “Energy Return on Investment” (EROI). This concept takes the world of economics and ties it in with our physical world.

It’s a different way of understanding economics in that it
explains how things actually work, and it’s a way that Hawaiians can relate to
at a gut level.

Ancient Hawaiians had a gift economy that was land- and environment-based: The more one gave, the more one received. This traditional system is quite different from the modern market economy, where the more one receives, the more one receives.

Many modern-day Hawaiians can play in both worlds. But there
are many other Hawaiians that just don’t feel right. Me included.

Professor Hall will give a series of lectures at UH Hilo and
UH Manoa. At UH Hilo, he will speak on January 4, 2012 and at UH Manoa, on
January 9th and 10th.  Details to follow.

He is retiring soon, and we have asked him to be a guest lecturer here during the Winter/Spring semester. He has agreed. He will be using his new book Energy and the Wealth of Nations.

This video, titled Peak Oil, Declining EROI and the New Energy-Economic Reality with Dr. Charles A.S. Hall, is very much worth watching. It’s 1:38:18. Watch it straight through, or jump straight to specific topics as follows:


4:54                    Importance of energy to economics

26:39                   Peak Oil is not the focus. Cessation of oil and energy production is the problem

27:54                   Energy Return on Investment (EROI)

33:35                   U.S. has lots of coal – in an emergency

34:30                   EROI is driving prices

38:55                   The trouble is, we need high EROI. How do we do that?

45:15                   Cheese slicer model. Higher energy price in, less discretionary income out

50:44                   Conclusions for the U.K. The principles are the same everywhere

1:32:40                Charles Hall talks about guest lecturing in Hawai‘i


My Speech at the Council of Native Hawaiian Advancement Conference

Noe Kalipi, Ramsay Taum and I – all board members from Ku‘oko‘a – each spoke for five minutes at the Council of Native Hawaiian Advancement conference.

Speech pix2

Noe and Ramsay were just awesome. It’s clear that Ku‘oko‘a is a native Hawaiian company with native Hawaiian sensibilities. The good wishes and warm requests for information were very humbling.

Senator Akaka spoke right before us.

Speech pix1

Here is the speech I gave.

Aloha Everyone,

I am Richard Ha, chairman of the board of Ku‘oko‘a. Ku‘oko‘a is trying to align the needs of the people with the needs of the utility.

I want to start by telling you who I am and what my values are. Mom is Okinawan, Higa from Moloka‘i; Pop’s father was Korean, Ha. My pop’s mom was Leihulu Kamahele. And her mom was Meleana Kamoe Kamahele and her dad was Frank Kamahele. Our family land was down the beach at Maku‘u in Puna. We were very poor but didn’t know it.

Pop would tell stories at the dinner table. He would talk about impossible situations, impossible odds. Then he would pound the table and point in the air. “Not, no can. CAN!”

And he would say, “There are a thousand reasons why no can. I only looking for the one reason why ‘Can.’”

He told us to find three solutions for every problem, and then find one more just in case. He only finished sixth grade, but he was a wise man.

I was a kolohe kid growing up. I went to UH Manoa, where I flunked out. Too many places to go, people to see and beers to drink. I was drafted, and applied to go to Officers Candidate School, and then I volunteered to go to Vietnam. Ended up walking in the jungle with a hundred other soldiers. If we got into trouble there was no one close enough to help us. The unwritten rule was that we all come back, or no one comes back. I liked that and kept that attitude ever since.

I went back to UH and majored in accounting so I could keep score when I went into business. Pop asked if I would come back and help run the family chicken farm. I came back and saw an opportunity to grow bananas, but I had no money.

“Not, no can, CAN!” so we traded chicken manure for banana pulapula. By questioning everything, looking into the future and forcing change we have been able to survive in farming for more than 30 years.

We farm 600 fee simple acres with 60 workers.  Five years ago, we noticed supply costs had been steadily rising, and we found it was all due to oil. I was the only person from Hawai‘i to attend three Peak Oil conferences. I went to learn about oil so that we could position our business.

There I found out that the world had been using twice as much oil as it had been finding for the last 30 years. This is a very serious situation. I am stuck with this knowledge and that knowledge has become my kuleana. I know what is likely to happen and so try to find solutions that are good for all of us.

There are truly Native Hawaiian sensitivities embedded in our Ku‘oko‘a team and organization. The board and the team we have put together are the best we could find. Ramsay Taum and Noe Kalipi are members of our board and we will each say a few words. Board members went to Hilo to participate in the festivities for the seven vaka that came up from the south. We felt that it was important.

Right now there are no guidelines to choose the low-cost, proven technology solution that eases the pressure on the rubbah slippah folks. We can do this. You folks all know the consequence of rising cost of energy, water, school lunches, etc. It is the folks on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder who will get their lights turned off first. Too often they are Hawaiians.

Iceland has managed to make themselves energy secure and food secure. Their electricity costs are less than half of ours. Can we find the solution to our energy problems while taking care of the rubbah slippah folks too? Leaving them behind is not an option. If we search for the solution, if we ask the question, we can find the answer.

In modern Hawaiian history, the economy has taken taken taken and the culture has given, given, given. We have a unique opportunity now where the economy can give and the culture can receive. If we can stabilize energy costs at a low level, as oil prices rise we will become more competitive to the rest of the world and our people’s standard of living will rise. We can address the energy problem and take care of the rubbah slippah folks too.

As Pop used to say: “Not ‘no can;’ ‘CAN!’”