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Banana's Won't Split


Big Island

BananasReports of the death of Mauna Kea Banana Co. have been greatly exaggerated.

Last April, the company announced that it was shutting down operations after 30 years in business. With about 400 acres devoted to Williams and apple banana varieties, Mauna Kea is the largest banana producer on the Big Island and one of the biggest in the state. Nearly 30 workers were to lose their jobs by final harvest.

Company president Richard Ha had cited rising oil prices and the resulting increase in the cost of fertilizer as the reason behind his decision to shut down. Banana plants are nitrogen hungry and nitrogen-rich fertilizers are petroleum based.

However, at a meeting several days after the announcement, Mauna Kea workers came up with an alternate plan: shut down apple banana production, which requires more labor and has a lower yield, but save the rest of the farm.

“Banana production is extremely hard work, requiring constant pruning of keiki [offshoots]. This is especially the case for the apple banana plant, which is very woody and fibrous,” says Ha. “Our workers said: ‘We can do this. We can make this work.’”

As a result, Ha is converting his apple banana fields (about 20 percent of his farm) into Williams, without a loss of acreage or personnel. In addition, Ha, who is also a leader in the sustainable agriculture movement, is taking some major steps to become energy independent. He is investing $1 million in hydroelectric technology that will harness the waters from one of his irrigation ditches. Ha will also build a small biodiesel production facility, converting old cooking grease from area restaurants into fuel for his farm equipment.   

“Our electric bill for the farm is about $15,000 a month right now. With hydroelectric power, we will not only provide for all of our daily needs but we’ll also have a 25 percent surplus,” says Ha. “We have to do whatever we can do to be self-sufficient, and then we are counting on consumers, who seem to prefer to get their produce from a local source.”

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Hawaii Business,June