5 things we learned from Hawai‘i Island farms

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A big and important — and let’s be honest, fun — part of these seminars is visiting farms, ranches and food producers on the various islands and meeting the visionaries behind these successful businesses.

We were fortunate to have the opportunity yesterday to talk story with leaders in agriculture on Hawai‘i Island — and glean from them important lessons, philosophies and advice regarding the industry, its challenges, and just running a farm in this difficult business environment.

Here are 5 things — oh, and there are more! — we learned:

1. If it doesn’t work, stop doing it.

IMG_0205Last year, longtime farmer and business leader Richard Ha, president of the 600-acre Hāmākua Springs Country Farms, made a decision that sent shockwaves throughout the local ag industry: he decided to stop growing tomatoes.

That was a huge deal since Ha’s farm produced some of the best and most popular vine-ripened tomatoes on the market.

His decision stemmed from one simple fact: he couldn’t afford it. The infrastructure where he housed his tomato operation was in much-needed repair, and it would be too costly to fix these greenhouses. So he decided to ditch tomatoes — he sold a million pounds of them a year — and concentrate on bananas, a crop he’s grown since 2002.

“The pluses gotta exceed the minuses, whatever you do,” he says. “Otherwise, you gotta do something else.”

2. Renewable energy is the future

IMG_0213When Ha moved his farm to Hāmākua 20 years ago, he chose this parcel of land because it had three streams. That meant free water.

But later, he realized he had something more valuable: an old plantation-era flume that could be harnessed to generate hydroelectricity.

The system, which includes a penstock and water turbines, cost a little more than $1 million, funded in part by the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture and grants. He says it will last more than 100 years, generating about 100 kilowatts of energy a day. He uses about 40.

Ha went from paying about $6,000 a month in energy cost to nearly nothing. And he has plans later to lease out some structures on his property and sell the energy at market price.

“Energy is more important than the telescope discussion, the GMO discussion, all of that,” Ha says. “This is really about our future.”

3. Try anything (responsibly)

IMG_0279When Lesley Hill and Mike Crowell started Wailea Agricultural Group in 1994, they had been told the only crops that grow in this area are sugar, macadamia nuts and cattle.

The pair proved everyone wrong.

Today, they grow more than a dozen different crops across 110 acres, including rambutans, mangosteen, yuzu, nutmeg, lychee, jack fruit and durian.

And they’ve done it responsibly, making sure everything is DOA-inspected, permitted and properly quarantined.

“We think a lot of wonderful things can be grown here and not be invasive,” Hill says. “We’re farmers. We don’t want to bring in anything harmful.”

IMG_0298One of their newest crops is the finger lime, a micro-citrus from Australia that boasts an interior pulp that resembles citrus pearls. It’s quickly become a favorite among local chefs who have come out to sample this unusual and playful fruit. The pair planted about 120 trees so far, selling the fruit at $40 a pound.

“It was just a fun thing,” Hill says. “We didn’t know how well it was going to do.”

4. Take care of the land

IMG_0335The mission of Wailea Ag isn’t to turn a profit or create a market for new crops.

It’s to be stewards of the land.

And Hill and Crowell take that very seriously.

In fact, their main crop — fresh hearts of palm — is sustainable: all of the fronds and outer layers of the tree to back into the beds as compose, enriching the soil and controlling weeds. And the plant, itself, is a non-host to fruit flies.

“If you take care of the land, it will take care of you,” Hill says.

5. It starts with education

IMG_0352The 10-acre demonstration farm at The Kohala Center is filled with all sorts of crops, from dinosaur kale to cherry tomatoes to some of the biggest, healthiest beets (top photo) you’ll ever see.

This is where hundreds of high school students and would-be farmers are learning about what it takes to grow their own food, to run a farm in Hawai‘i, and why it’s important to be food self-reliant.

The Kohala Center’s Beginning Farmer Training Program, spearheaded by Derrick Kiyabu (formerly of MA‘O Organic Farms on O‘ahu), has already graduated 72 participants, some of whom already have small farms, others who just wanted to see what it would take to grow food commercially.

And they’re also learning the business-side of farming, from financing to marketing, in this comprehensive, 16-session program.

“It’s so rewarding to see someone who has gone through our program learn QuickBooks to keep track of monthly expenses or take care of payroll,” says Nicole Milne, associate vice president for programs. “And sometimes they learn that farming isn’t for them — and that’s an important lesson, too.”

3 thoughts on “5 things we learned from Hawai‘i Island farms

  1. VanessaLum says:

    @#1, it’s all how you slice and dice it, IMHO. A million pounds of locally grown tomatoes will now probably be imported, affecting the effort for island sustainability and definitely flowing local dollars to the Mainland. Unknown is other factors that entered into the equation, beyond the cost of bringing infrastructure up-to-date, that is not shared. To what extent does producers have an obligation to their customers, the local economy, culture and quality of island life?!?

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