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Field of Dreams

Why Big Island farmers are key to a sustainable state economy

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But here’s another reason why his success is so important. On average, Big Island residents pay more than double the highest rate on the Mainland for electricity, at about $0.42 per kilowatt. Ha says Hamakua Spring’s monthly electricity bill rose from an average of $9,000 a month last year to more than $15,000 a month this year. Energy is a major obstacle for farmers today and Ha is trying to show the way around it.

Ha soon will be able to breathe a little easier. He is just months away from tapping into a nearby river to create enough hydro energy to power his entire farm operation. The river water will flow downhill into a pipe and turn a turbine that will create electricity. Ha says once all the infrastructure costs are amortized, he’ll save more than half of what he would’ve been paying per month for electricity.

While sustainability talks are most often spotlighted at big conferences or with massive studies and commissions, Big Island leaders say it’s this type of innovation by individuals like Ha that’s generating a lot of progressive talk  — and action — on Hawaii Island.

That grassroots momentum is exactly why it might just succeed, says Betsy Cole, deputy director of The Kohala Center. She says sustainability is really an effort that needs to be led by the people; not something that politicians or government will solve on their own. “The old plantation hierarchy won’t work here; change has got to start with the people,” says Cole.

It’s that same thinking that motivated the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce to create the E Malama Aina Festival, scheduled for Nov. 7 and 8. Visitors will learn about what each business industry, such as transportation, agriculture and alternative energy, among others, is doing to promote better sustainable practices. No surprise, Hamakua Springs’ Ha is co-chairing the event.

On the opposite side of the island, a community-organized program called Kokua Kailua is helping to pump extra revenue back into struggling Kona businesses. On one Sunday each month, Alii Drive, which is comparable to a mini Kalakaua Avenue, is transformed into a street fair for local merchants to sell their products. Vivian Landrum, executive director of the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce, says the purpose of the event is to encourage kamaaina to shop, dine and buy local. “It’s all about supporting our local vendors and keeping our hard-earned dollars in Hawaii,” says Landrum. The first Kokua Kailua event held in August drew an estimated 1,800 visitors.

The Big Island is overflowing with projects just like these aimed at educating the community about the importance of supporting local producers and promoting local agriculture. Derek Kurisu, executive vice president of KTA Super Stores, has been championing these issues for decades. Kurisu has made it his personal mission to discuss issues of food sustainability and adds an additional layer to the discussion as well: food security. In the event of an emergency, Kurisu estimates KTA alone has at least several weeks’ worth of food for the entire island of Hawaii. “But that’s only a few weeks,” he says. “What are we going to do after that, wait and cross our fingers?”

In 1994, Kurisu created the Mountain Apple Brand to provide local manufacturers an opportunity to better brand their products and lower packaging costs under one unified label. All Mountain Apple Brand products are grown, processed or manufactured in Hawaii. Today, more than 50 local vendors supply more than 200 different Mountain Apple Brand products to six KTA Super Stores on Hawaii Island. Whenever possible, KTA sells locally produced products over Mainland imports.

“When you have more products manufactured here, we become more sustainable,” Kurisu adds.

In 2007, The Kohala Center released the first phase of its Island of Hawaii Whole System Project, a research and action venture conducted by the Rocky Mountain Institute. The goal of the project was to promote and innovate long-term planning and local food self-reliance. The report said that the low local market share — at 15 percent for food — and the high price residents pay for it, which makes up about 22 percent of their average income, are problems that degrade the island’s economic and environmental sustainability and quality of life. It also noted that vibrant agricultural and local food production sectors have the potential to protect land from urbanization, decrease fuel used for transporting food and reduce waste for the already overflowing landfills.

The Big Island Farm Bureau’s Farrell says the disconnect between local farmers and consumers frequently hinders the growth of local agriculture. “We need to do a better job of educating the consumer about what’s grown here and the advantages of eating local produce,” she says.

However, The Kohala Center’s Hamabata says the resurgence in farmers’ markets around Hawaii Island is a good sign that residents are catching on. The Hilo Farmers Market, which began 20 years ago, is the largest of its kind on the Big Island. About 200 farmers and small businesses participate every Wednesday and Saturday. According to Keith De La Cruz, who bought the market in 1999, all of the plants and produce, with the exception of garlic, sold at the market are grown on Hawaii Island. “The dollar that is being spent on fresh local products goes back into our community and customers get that direct interaction with the growers.” He estimates close to 5,000 customers visit the market each week — 70 percent of whom are local.

Contrary to what many believe, De La Cruz says prices at the Hilo Farmers’ Market are very competitive with those at grocery stores. But Mayor Harry Kim says the real success and potential of local agriculture isn’t about price; it’s about the consumer. “If we want to promote local ag people, well, we better buy their products and stop grumbling about the fact that they might charge us $0.50 more,” Kim says. “We as consumers have to realize that the cost to produce here is much higher. We better think about what is at stake if we don’t support our local industries.”

There is some precedence for the Big Island’s potential to solve sustainability issues.

According to Hawaii Electric Light Co. (HELCO), 31.3 percent of the Big Island’s power comes from renewable energy, compared to 10.3 percent on Oahu and 19.3 percent on Maui. Earlier this year, Gov. Linda Lingle called for 70 percent of the state’s power to be generated by clean-energy sources by 2030. Kim says HELCO is promising to achieve 50 percent renewable energy within five years.

One of the leaders in the field is Puna Geothermal Venture, which currently produces about 30 mega watts of renewable energy — about 20 percent of the Big Island’s electricity — with the potential to generate even more. The company uses state-of-the-art technology to extract geothermal steam and hot water from Kilauea’s volcanic heat and converts it to electricity. Hawaii Island is also taking advantage of its abundance of natural resources by producing solar, wind and hydro energy that gets put back into the grid.

Then there’s the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA), a state-operated ocean science technology park that has yet to realize its full potential in energy-related research. NELHA was built to stimulate economic development and diversification. It is the largest technology park in Hawaii, with 870 acres of prime coastal property at Keahole Point in Kona. Originally developed in 1974 to provide a support facility for research on the ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) process, NELHA is now landlord to about 40 commercial enterprises. Together, these companies generate more than $40 million a year in total economic impact, creating more than 250 jobs and high-value product exports. Koyo USA is one of these businesses. It desalinates and ships millions of bottles of mineral-rich, deep-sea water each week, making it one of the largest exports for the state.

NELHA also supports a number of aquaculture endeavors, which utilize deep-sea water that is pumped from 3,000 feet through a 55-inch, 9,000-foot-long pipe. The combination of warm (80-degree Fahrenheit) surface water with cold (40-degree) deep-sea water, creates 52-degree water — prime for raising lobsters, Japanese abalone, kampachi and clams, according to John Deveau, a NELHA volunteer who gives weekly presentations at the park’s Hawaii Gateway Energy Center.

However, due to budget cuts by the state as a result of the declining economy, many key energy-related projects planned for NELHA have been put on the back burner, says Kim.

“The potential is there; the money is not,” he says.

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