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Field of Dreams

Why Big Island farmers are key to a sustainable state economy

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Friends of Richard Ha, president of Hamakua Springs Country Farm, describe him as the ultimate Big Island boy: humble, a little bit country and deeply passionate about the place he calls home. When he started out as a modest banana farmer more than 30 years ago, he had simple goals: raise his crops and provide for his family.

 Those were simpler times.

Today, Ha is at the forefront of agricultural innovation, which many Big Island leaders say is key to a sustainable economy and community on Hawaii Island.  Ha is developing a nutrient-recycling system that converts fish by-products into plant food and a hydro-energy facility that will use river water to create electricity. The idea is to reduce the cost of farming by improving efficiency. His efforts are critical to finding ways to make farming more profitable in a tourism-driven economy that skews land values and today is largely dependent on imported food.

 “If we start refocusing our efforts on local industries, such as agriculture and small business, it’s possible to shift the foundation of our entire tourist-based economy,” says Matthews Hamabata, executive director of The Kohala Center, an independent, nonprofit academic institute for research and education in the environmental sciences.

It’s no minor task.

Historically, the Big Island has been the first to get hit and the last to recover in an economic slump. According to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, the Big Island saw a 23 percent decrease in total visitor arrivals in August over the same month last year and a 48 percent decrease in cruise ship arrivals — direct results of skyrocketing fuel prices, the closure of Aloha Airlines and the departure of two Norwegian Cruise Line ships earlier this year. Many residents believe oil prices will continue to raise the cost of living and hurt Hawaii’s tourism industry.

“That’s why it’s never good to put all your eggs into one basket,” says Big Island Mayor Harry Kim, adding, “We have to find ways to diversify our economy.”

Of course, this type of discourse has been going on for years in Hawaii, on all islands and at the state level, with energy issues being the most talked about challenges of late. But Lorie Farrell, executive director of the Big Island Farm Bureau, says another important step for the state to become more self-sufficient is growing and consuming more local produce. “We’re never going to get away from tourism as a major source of our income, and I don’t think we should,” she says. “But, if we build up our local ag industry … we could start to take care of more of our own needs, and that means the money stays here.”

In that effort, the Big Island is front and center. Ha’s just one of many in this emerging grassroots movement.

“There’s strength in numbers,” says Judi Steinman, executive officer for the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce. “Whether it is psychological or actually enabling businesses and farmers to work together, I see a lot of people stepping up to do their part.”

As Ha works alongside three generations of his family and about 80 other employee on a 600-acre farm in Pepeekeo, it’s obvious that sustainability is something that’s very personal to him: “This is not just about trying to be green,” he says. “This is about looking out for future generations — my kids and their kids — so that they can enjoy the same life that I did. Local style is to take care of the people and take care of the land. That’s why sustainability is everybody’s kuleana.”

But when it comes to farming, Ha isn’t just trying to build up; he’s also trying to build out. His goal is to improve farming efficiency so that he and other farmers can eventually expand their market share of local produce throughout the state. By raising his crops hydroponically (in water and fertilizer rather than the traditional soil), Ha is able to significantly reduce the amount of pesticides and fertilizer he uses, both of which are imported and oil-based. Energy costs are also trimmed because tractors are not needed to till the soil.

Ha says just a few years ago, 80-pound bags of fertilizer sold for $11. These days, smaller 50-pound bags go for about $30. “That kind of stuff just kills farmers,” he says. “What’s going to happen down the line if we can’t afford fertilizer?”

When coupled with hydroponics, Ha’s aquaponics nutrient-recycling system could allow him to grow specific crops all year round. “Our object is to reuse the waste from bananas and feed it to fish, say like tilapia,” he says. “The fish give off ammonia as waste. Then, we take that waste water and run it through a biofilter, which converts the ammonia into reusable nutrients.” Ha later uses those nutrients to feed his hydroponic crops, eliminating the need for fertilizer.

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