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
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.