Summary of Operation
■ 800-acre banana plantation
■ Pest management, smart use of water, low inputs Problem Addressed
Banana diseases. A fungus devastated Hawaii's banana industry in mid-1950s, convincing nearly all growers to shift production to pineapples and sugar cane. For the next two decades, these tropical islands imported most of their bananas from South America and Australia, like the rest of America. For U.S. growers to raise healthy bananas, most rely on synthetic fungicides and nematicides.
In the 1970s, pioneers like Richard Ha began experimenting with commercial banana-growing again. Acknowledging a need for synthetics to combat virulent fungi and nematodes in the super-wet climate on his island, Ha nonetheless has tried to implement as many sustainable practices as possible to minimize erosion, cut back on water use and, above all, reduce dependence on chemicals.
Ha's father, Richard Sr., was a successful poultry farmer, managing egg production from as many as 35,000 layers, and selling the mature birds as stewing hens. Richard Jr. grew up helping with all facets of the operation, but never really thought about being a farmer himself. Then, when he was in college, his father offered to set aside 25 acres for his son to use as an agricultural experiment of his choosing.
"I could already see that competition was making the business really difficult for my father," Ha says. "There were all kinds of problems with the disposal of manure, so I decided to see what else I could do that might be more sustainable and make a little money."
Using the plentiful chicken manure he had at his disposal, Ha improved the soil on his 25 acres and started planting banana plants with a resistance to the killing fungus from the 1950s.
"It was really a shoestring operation back then," he recalls. "I knew a lot of grocers from making egg deliveries for my father, and I started going around and asking them to save the cardboard boxes they got their bananas in so I could re-use them."
Hampered by a shortage of up-to-date knowledge about the best methods for cultivating bananas in Hawaii's warm but exceedingly wet climate, Ha set out to experiment, document and learn from his mistakes. "It was all I could do at the time," he says.
Focal Point of Operation — Sustainable banana production
Between his two farms — one north of Hilo and one south — Ha and his crew of 70 produce and ship an average of 7,000 boxes of bananas per week, each box weighing slightly more than 40 pounds.
The work is labor intensive and demanding because bananas are so delicate, Ha notes. No machines can reach up regularly and brush twigs, leaves and other detritus from developing "hands" of bananas so as much sunlight as possible reaches the individual fruits. The same goes for wrapping each hand with plastic as it reaches the final stage of maturity. The hands are still harvested by individuals, who must bring them slowly from the fields on padded carts to minimize bruising.
that princely when compared to the costs of raising bananas. Ha's company has only been able to activate its profit-sharing plan in the past two years, even though it has been policy for almost two decades. That's because Ha pays the salaries of 70 full-time employees, as well as the costs to lease the land on which his bananas are planted and processed. He also pays for inputs, taxes, equipment, etc.
At the central packing houses, the bananas are washed, broken down into the bunches familiar to grocery store buyers, and packed into sturdy boxes for shipment. The growing season stretches year-round, and tending the fields is nearly as demanding as the care of the fruit itself.
Economics and Profitability Ha reports that the average market price in 2000 for bananas was 32 cents per pound. His business, as noted above, ships an average 280,000 pounds of bananas each week, translating to an average weekly gross income of nearly $90,000.
That seemingly staggering sum is not all
"It's a tough business," Ha says. "And after paying all the bills there weren't a lot of profits left."
He hopes that his success in the past two years is a sign of even greater profits to come, but insists that the business cannot expand beyond its current structure of his two stepchildren and a son-in-law helping him manage it. "We've reached the limit of what the family can comfortably manage," he says. "To keep making a profit we've got to do a better job with what we have."
His efforts are proving that bananas can be grown — and a successful business can be built — without the profligate use of chemicals, extensive erosion, and considerable amounts of water that are standard in commercial banana-growing operations.
Hilo is by far the rainiest city in the United States, Ha says, with an average annual rainfall twice that, for example, of Seattle's. And that presents a double-edged sword to a banana grower.
Bananas need lots of water — the plant and its fruit consist of 90 percent water — so 127 inches of the stuff annually is a boon. But funguses and nematodes thrive in such moist conditions, too. Ha knows well how quickly they can destroy healthy bananas. Caterpillars, which love to eat bananas, tend to proliferate in the wet, warm climate as well.
Ha says he has been forced through the years to combat these pests with conventional chemicals, but that he has also experimented and found ways to lessen his dependence on them. For example, he has learned that he can cut the frequency and severity of "leaf-cutter" caterpillar infestations by boosting the population of predatory wasps. He lines his groves with flowers to attract the wasps to nest in his groves.
Ha also discourages moths and other flying pests by removing the flowers at the end of each banana fruit before maturity. That's not a common practice in the industry because it's so labor intensive. It's easier to spray pesticides.
Cultivating fewer plants per acre than the industry norm also has proven beneficial. Despite recording lower yields, Ha allows grass to grow along the rows and between plants to greatly reduce erosion as well as to provide a "sponge effect" that holds fertilizers, insecticides and fungicides near the plants for longer periods instead of allowing them to leach quickly into the water table. Ha says the reduced yield tends to be balanced by an equally reduced need for expensive inputs.
Additionally, though it would appear to be unnecessary in such a thoroughly wet climate, Ha is initiating efforts to recycle water. Lots of it is needed during the packing process both for washing and for transport, and Ha is certain he can save money by recycling most of the water he uses instead of channeling it into the sewer system. Each year, they capture about 700,000 gallons of rainwater from the roof of one of their buildings in one of two on-site reservoirs. They use the water to wash and sluice the bananas to the packing rooms.
Finally, while Ha follows the industry practice of wrapping bananas in plastic while they are still on the tree to stabilize color and stave off last-minute damage from pests, he does not follow the industry standard of using bags laced with the pesticide Dursban. His bags are pesticide-free.
These efforts have earned Ha's farms an "Eco-OK" distinction from the Rainforest Alliance.
Community and Quality of Life Benefits Ha enjoys being a pioneer — both of the reestablished Hawaiian banana industry and of more sustainable methods for growing bananas. He believes the Hawaiian climate, particularly on his island, is ideally suited to growing good-tasting bananas with a minimum of synthetic inputs, and is proud of the proof he's provided to support that belief.
Ha and his wife, June, have traveled a good portion of the world to see how others grow bananas, and they are proud to have been joined in the business by both their children and a son-in-law.
He employs 70 full-timers from the community and provides them with health and dental benefits. He eliminated using the pesticide Dursban partly because of worker safety.
"My workers have to apply those bags by hand, and I couldn't see having them work with that powder falling down on them all day," Ha says.
"I think I could fill a museum with things that didn't work," Ha says. "But that doesn't mean I should not have tried them, especially when nobody around me could give me any real knowledgeable advice."
He says patience has been his greatest guide, and "taking the long-term view" is always necessary. Such an attitude caused him to change the way he thought about himself after a time, too. He said he considered himself a businessman exclusively when he started growing bananas, and that his initial interest in sustainable methods sprang from a belief that they could save him money and time. That has proven true, but his interest in these methods and watching them at work has had the effect of making him feel more like a farmer than a businessman.
"Now I care as much about doing things that help my soil and my water as I do about the business end," he said.
Hawaiian banana growers were encouraged a couple of years ago when the USDA approved, for the first time, the export of their bananas to the other 49 states. Ha expanded his operation by another 300 acres to take advantage of the opportunity, and will soon be shipping to the mainland and to Japan.
He is also in the process of changing most of his production from the Williams variety of bananas — the most commonly grown — to a variety known as the Apple banana. Though more delicate, Ha says this variety is sweeter and has a more complex flavor that appeals to many consumers.
These bananas have been selected, in fact, by the catalogue distributor of gourmet products, Harry and David, to be included in their holiday fruit baskets — an event Ha expects to increase both his company's profile and profits.
He said he will also be entering the market for other tropical fruits by testing his ability to raise and market papayas, and he plans on establishing a nursery for decorative plants.
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