at a Glance
Mauna Kea Banana Farm & Kea’au
Summary of Operation
• 800-acre banana plantation
• Pest management, smart
use of water, low inputs
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.
The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural
By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission.
Pp. 131 to 133
For complete text or to order: www.sare.org/newfarmer
To contact SARE:
Phone (301) 504-6425
Fax (301) 504-5207
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.
Banana : “I care as much about doing
things that help my soil and my water as I do about
the business end,” says Richard Ha with wife,
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
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,”
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.
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 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.
“It’s a tough business,” Ha says. “And
after paying all the bills there weren’t a lot of profits
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
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
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
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 re-established
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
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
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.