First his beloved tomatoes, now the bananas and the remainder of Hamakua Springs farm.
Richard Ha, founder of Hamakua Springs Country Farms on Hawaii island, updated his popular blog Wednesday to say he will be shutting down around the end of March. He told his
20-plus employees that the closure was partly due to
Ha wrote on his blog that while oil prices have fallen, “the cost of fertilizer, plastic, all sorts of things that have oil petroleum costs embedded in their prices, didn’t come down with it. Those costs stayed up.”
“The oil price will go back up again, and anticipating that, we had to make a
decision,” Ha wrote, adding that while the company is not bankrupt, action needs to be taken “before it gets to that point.”
Family-run farms, like the one he grew up on, can operate differently, he said. “When we were kids, my pop was raising chickens, and if we had to work 60 hours (a week), you’re a kid and you go ahead and do ’em,” he said.
In addition to the cyclical nature of oil prices, bunchy top virus, which stunts banana plants’ growth and deforms their fruit, already is in nearby gulches, Ha said, adding, “We’ve had it on our farm already. Five months ago it jumped across the Wailuku River.” Bunchy top virus is spread by aphids, he said.
A 1999 quarantine of banana plants on Hawaii island was unsuccessful and was abandoned, and the spread of the disease has not abated.
With some 150 acres of banana crop imperiled, Ha’s further actions might include leasing some of his 600 acres to a farm that grows corn for a dairy operation, and to a group seeking a license to grow and distribute medical marijuana. That group also is interested in the hydroelectric facility he fired up in 2014.
The group gave him assurances his employees would get first preference for hiring and that it would take steps to provide security for the community, given the sensitive nature of the crop it is contemplating.
“We are working to try and help the workers” in other ways, Ha said, and “other banana farmers … have said they have work for our people.”
Ha “has one of the most brilliant minds that I’ve ever encountered among farmers and agricultural people. He’s such a visionary thinker, it’s amazing,” said Chuck Furuya, a partner in several restaurants run by D.K. Kodama.
Furuya noted that Ha’s hydroelectric facility provides free electricity to employees’ homes, the farm’s neighbors and other farmers who lease plots of land from him. “What kind of man does those things? It’s a way of being inclusive as opposed to just trying to change the world by yourself,” Furuya said, describing Ha as a “leader in the industry.”
The fact also was acknowledged by well-known Waimanalo farmer Dean Okimoto, founder of Nalo Farms.
“For Richard to shut down, it should be a signal to everybody that if you want ag to survive, you can’t talk about sustainability and talk about all these things and not understand that we need support, we need understanding and we need technology to survive,” Okimoto said. He also has been approached by a group seeking to grow medical marijuana.
Ha’s blog recalled better times, years ago when the farm moved to Pepeekeo, a rural town on the Hamakua Coast, from its origins in Keaau in the Puna District. He was able to offer employees “a good profit-sharing plan, and one of the best medical and dental plans you could get. It had vision and all kinds of extras,” he wrote.
To fight oil dependency that had him paying electric bills of about $10,000 a month, he built the hydroelectric generation system to power his entire operation with a plan to give surplus electricity to the island’s electrical utility for free.
Despite efforts to keep costs down, the farm “started having a harder and harder time,” he wrote. The company could no longer continue funding the profit-sharing plan, which was discontinued. Then medical benefits had to be reduced.
In 2015 “we had to cut wages one time. That was pretty desperate,” he said, and while the intention always was to restore the wage cut, “we were never able to.”
Ha began farming roughly 40 years ago when he started growing bananas on a chicken farm owned by his father. The younger Ha’s operation became known as Kea‘au Bananas, later called Mauna Kea Banana Co. and then, under its current branding, Hamakua Springs, following its move to Pepeekeo.
Hamakua Springs ceased production of a variety of hydroponically grown tomatoes in November 2014 citing the prohibitive cost of replacing equipment, with Ha saying his plants also were no longer producing fruit.
The farm operation had produced about 2 million pounds of tomatoes each year, via 140 greenhouses spread over about 15 acres. Its cessation displaced about 30 employees.