Richard Ha writes:
Years ago, we decided we need to plan for the worse and hope for the best. We have always try to position ourselves for where we will need to be in five or 10 years.
In the early part of 2008, rising oil prices squeezed us and other farmers. Oil prices have dropped, but assuming they start to rise again and will probably be higher than before – where do we need to be five and 10 years from now?
When oil prices spiked earlier this year, we could feel the strain it put on our employees as they struggled to stretch their paychecks. We could not raise their pay, but we were able to supply them with food every Thursday, when we gave them bananas, tomatoes and other things we grew. Utilizing our free water resource, we now plan to also supply our workers with tilapia fish, for protein.
Because of our free fresh water, we can grow tilapia without much input other than food. Roy Tanaka tells us that tilapia are vegetarians and we may be able to feed the fish "off grade" vegetables and fruit. We are not necessarily interested in seeing how fast the fish can grow. We are more interested in using waste products to keep costs down so we can give our people food.
When oil prices rise again, we will see electricity, water and gas prices rise, too. To be prepared for rising oil prices we are installing a hydroelectric generator in the flume that runs through our property. It will generate enough electricity to supply our whole operation and still have 25 percent left over. We plan to let our workers plug in their electric hybrids at the farm as an extra benefit of working for Hamakua Springs.
Operationally, we know that rising oil prices means rising fertilizer prices. So on the portion of land we lease out, we work with area farmers in order that crop rotation and cover cropping benefits each other. Together with hydroelectricity, we will change the cost characteristics of banana, sweet potato and other crops.
I can say that crop rotating bananas and sweet potatoes has never been done before. But why not? The principles are sound.
We also have small growers working the ridgelines and small niches that fit their size. They do crops that we don't do and so we complement each other. On our 600-acre parcel, we are working toward having many variations of food. Doing this will engage many people. When push comes to shove, it is important that many people have a vested interest in our system of agriculture.
Generating electricity from the river means that our electricity costs will be stable. In contrast, no one can guess how high oil prices will rise. I think they will go much higher than what we saw several months ago. Better safe than sorry.
Looking beyond the farm, if we have cheap electricity then we can serve as a place to consolidate and refrigerate shipments of other farmer’ products, so they can get to O‘ahu in a cost-effective manner. This is important because O‘ahu land prices are so high and the population is so densely arranged that it’s not easy to see how the people there can feed themselves. This means that outer-island farmers need to be positioned to supply food for O‘ahu in a seamless manner.
We found that three ahupua‘a run through our farm and that was very interesting to know. I feel I am in tune with how the Hawaiians would have managed these lands in the old days. It is about observation, diligence and common sense.
Putting everything together, we have all the pieces to make a sustainable community and maybe even a whole district. It seems to me that with further collaboration, we can supply all the food for people living between Hilo and Honoka‘a, and probably even further.
It will be an interesting year. Best wishes to you and yours for a good 2009.