Business Appeal

Mauna Kea Banana Co. encompasses 60 acres of farmland on the Big Island. Although it is the largest banana-producing operation in the state, it is still a small player in the world's market

March, 2003

Richard Ha is happy to be the fruit of the month. The fruit of the month for the Oregon-based upscale retailer and catalog company Harry & David’s, that is. Ha, president of Mauna Kea Banana Co., is the sole supplier of luscious Hawaii-grown apple bananas to the largest fruit-catalog company in the world. His apple bananas are a catalog staple and were featured as Harry & David’s fruit of the month in November 2001.

The result? Ha shipped 9,000 gift boxes in a single month. And his business with Harry & David’s has quadrupled since 1999, according to John Roberts, senior vice president for Harry & David’s parent company, Bear Creek Corp.

It’s the kind of lucrative Mainland boutique market, which most Hawaii farmers can only dream of. While Ha won’t reveal precise numbers, Harry & David’s charges $30 for a four-pound gift box. The wholesale price for bananas in Hawaii averages between 30 and 40 cents per pound. Since Ha sells direct to Harry & David’s, there is no middleman, and he clearly receives a hefty premium. Ha sells the vast majority of the 280,000 pounds of bananas he harvests per week through wholesalers. But the small percentage he sells directly to retailers and catalog companies gives him a leg up on other banana farmers by helping him to diversify and spread his risk.

It is a much-needed leg up in the brutal local banana business. In late 2001, the state’s second-largest grower, Aloha Banana Co., declared bankruptcy. Dirt-cheap bananas from Central America periodically flood the $10-million-in-annual-sales Hawaii market, savaging the 200-odd local growers who supply 75 percent of the supermarket bananas in the state. Even though Ha, who controls 600 acres of banana plantings in Keaau and Pepeekeo, is the largest Hawaii farmer, he is a minnow in the world of multithousand-acre banana plantations outside the United States.

To compensate for his farm’s lack of size, Ha grew smart. The son of a Hilo chicken farmer, Ha got into the business on a whim after returning from a tour of duty as a Vietnam War officer and joining his family’s business. In the early 1970s, a Hilo supermarket owner urged him to grow bananas. At the time, local-grown bananas were a rarity in Hawaii.

Young Richard cleared 25 acres of his family’s property and fertilized it with chicken manure procured for free from his father. “I had $300 on a credit card, some banana boxes from supermarkets, and that was it,” Ha recalls. The whole family pitched in, including Mrs. Ha, who helped plant and pack bananas, when the company first started. It’s still a family business. Ha’s wife, June, is the vice president in charge of personnel matters, as well as administration and accounting.

Though the early stages of the business were hit-and-miss (Ha once lost a harvest of bananas when the air conditioning window unit he was using in the ripening room froze), Ha has become one of the more sophisticated farmers in the state. In 1993, he was one of the first two banana farmers to receive the vaunted “Eco-OK” certification. He also has been lauded for his sustainable agriculture operations by the Rainforest Alliance and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Long before it became en vogue, Ha cut back on pesticide usage and began following a principle called Integrated Pest Management, or IPM. This mandates the use of strong pesticides only as a last resort and encourages farmers to use other means.

 

Bananas: Number of farms, acreage, yield, utilization, price, and value, by county, 1997-2001
Year Farms
#s
Acreage In Crop1 Acreage Harvested2 Yield/acre (harvested)
(1,000 lbs.)
Utilization Fresh
(1,000 lbs.)
Farm price
Cents/ lb.
Value of sales
$1,000
State3
1997 170 1,590 950 14.4 13,700 38 5,206
1998 200 1,600 1,420 14.8 21,000 35 7,350
1999 210 1,760 1,420 17.3 24,500 35 8,575
2000 210 1,710 1,460 19.9 29,000 36 10,440
2001 200 1,660 1,490 18.8 28,000 38 10,640
COUNTIES
Hawaii
1997 48 840 550 17.8 9,800 34 3,352
1998 50 740 665 16.7 11,100 31 3,430
1999 45 830 650 18.2 11,800 32.5 3,819
2000 45 815 665 21.4 14,200 34.5 4,927
2001 50 790 730 23 16,800 37.5 6,302
Honolulu
1997 75 635 320 8.6 2,750 46.5 1,276
1998 75 715 655 13.1 8,600 38 3,268
1999 85 785 670 16.9 11,300 35.5 4,039
2000 80 760 685 19.7 13,500 35.5 4,826
2001 75 710 645 15.7 10,100 37.5 3,768
Kauai
1997 28 40 35 12.9 450 43.5 196
1998 40 60 50 10 500 42.5 212
1999 40 60 50 10.2 510 42.5 218
2000 45 60 50 11 550 43 236
2001 45 75 55 9.5 520 45.5 237
Maui
1997 19 75 45 15.6 700 54.5 382
1998 35 85 50 16 800 55 440
1999 40 85 50 17.8 890 56 499
2000 40 75 60 12.5 750 60 451
2001 30 85 60 9.7 580 57.5 33

 

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