Richard Ha

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Community Builders

LONG STORY SHORT: Community Builders

 

Kukui and Gary Maunakea-Forth of O‘ahu, Stacy Sproat-Beck of Kaua‘i and Richard Ha of Hawai‘i Island have built ‘āina-based enterprises focused on building better communities. Hear how these visionaries behind MA‘O Organic Farms, Waipā Foundation and the former Hamakua Springs Country Farms have put their values to work for the greater good.

 

Program

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Dec. 23, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Community Builders Audio

 

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Transcript

 

Richard Ha

We always plan five, ten years out.  We’re always looking for where we need to be in the future.  And we already know that this is happening, it’s gonna get worse, so we’re already moving in that direction.

 

Stacy Sproat-Beck

I remember asking that question when I was in college.  You know; what about a nonprofit?  Because I knew it was there, and it was really an amazing opportunity, you know, to be able to grow this entity that is really for the community, and to take care of the land, and to teach people.

 

Kukui Maunakea-Forth

That’s what I love most about what we do, is that we’re providing this way for young people at an early age to build equity. You know, and it’s not just financial equity, but it’s also equity in terms of the relationships that we’re creating with other people in our community, and with the land.

 

Every entrepreneur seeks professional success.  An uncommon few also aim to build a better community.  Coming up on Long Story Short, our conversations with four individuals who are among a rare breed of business and community leaders.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  On this edition of Long Story Short, community builders.  It takes a remarkable type of person to look beyond their own family, business, and circumstances, maybe beyond their own lifetime, and work to make life better for the broader community over the long haul. To illustrate the impact these individuals can have, we revisit four entrepreneurs running distinctive businesses and nonprofits on three different islands.  We think it’s worth another look at what these innovators have accomplished, putting their vision and values to work, and how they empower people in their communities.

 

First up, Gary and Kukui Maunakea-Forth.  Though they come from different places—New Zealand and Nānākuli, this married couple came together through shared concerns about social conditions on the Wai‘anae Coast of O‘ahu.  And when it came time to start their enterprise in 2001, making money was far from the top priority.  Now the largest organic farm on O‘ahu, the nonprofit MA‘O Organic Farms is providing much more than food.  It’s creating a future for young people in West O‘ahu, and educating leaders for the next generation.

 

Gary Maunakea-Forth

I think the first place it came down to was the fact that we weren’t growing our own food.  We definitely worried about the kids in our community.  But I think because we saw all this land that was being wrongly used, we just kept asking ourselves: Why aren’t we feeding ourselves? And then, we dug a little bit deeper, and one of our friends who’s a soil scientist said it turns out that the soil in Lualualei Valley is one of the most unique and nutrient rich soils in the world.  And we didn’t know that, and kids in our community weren’t taught that.  The connection to the land had been severed. And we still to this day, those kids that come up to the farm, they’ve never been up in the valleys.  And so, I think that’s where it started.  And then, you know, definitely as our kids started to get a little bit older and go through the same problems that other kids were going through, our connection to what kids in Waianae, what kids in rural Hawai‘i are going through started to just, you know, really sort of slap us in the face; you know, the idea that a good public education is very difficult to get in Hawai‘i.

 

We didn’t want to just grow food and eat it ourselves.  We wanted it to be highly marketable.  Because, you know, when we analyzed our community, the state of poverty was multigenerational.  And we thought that if we sell our own food for a premium price, that money wouldn’t go back to our community.  And so, we looked at the kind of social service kinds of things that we had been doing ourselves and that others were doing, and we wanted to add this what at the time was called community-based economic development.  But we wanted to add this economic development layer that now has become social enterprise.  And so, that’s where it started.

 

Kukui Maunakea-Forth

I wanted it to be this great education program, and I wanted, you know, this element of culture and, you know, this element of vocational skills being taught, and this element of community work being done.  And it just didn’t happen like that at all.  It was whatever, you know, resources and people that were sort of there at the time. And it started off as a ten-month-long experience; you know, farm work experience.

 

So, who were you first enrollees?

 

 

 

Kukui Maunakea-Forth

Multi people that we had talked to their parents at Tamura’s.  Or we saw down at the beach park and said: Hey, you know, we’re starting a program; would you guys like to, you know, send your daughter?  Oh, yeah; my daughter’s graduating, and she doesn’t really have plans; sure, we’ll sign her up.

 

Those people that were meant to be there, ended up there.  And, you know, all of us, you know, growing up on the Coast, the fact that there’s only eleven percent that will go to college; that’s a small number.  So, what about the other eighty-eight, ninety percent that aren’t going to college; where are those guys?  And, you know, we thought long and hard about who we wanted to have this opportunity, and to have this experience.  And it was really those that were going to become the leaders. So, this eighteen to twenty-four-year-old Wai‘anae or Nānākuli graduate that had a desire to do something different, and to connect with not only the culture, but with a future in the community.

 

Gary Maunakea-Forth

Almost every young person that has been in touch with MA‘O—and this is pretty much the condition of the Wai‘anae Coast, you know, the federal government calls them at-risk.  And if you look deep at the statistics, you’ll find that Waianae has twice the teen pregnancy rate, twice the substance abuse rate.  All of these indicators are terrible, twice as bad as anywhere else.  And so, most of the kids that come have issues at home, or in their own lives that they’ve got to deal with.  On top of that, you know, we’re told in this society that if you go and get a college education, you can get ahead in life, you know, you can get your American Dream. Most of the kids coming out of the public schools in the State of Hawai‘i and in Wai‘anae are what’s termed remedial. And so, they have to be highly motivated.

 

When we started MA‘O, we wanted to start it with an associate degree program.  That took us three or four years to gain momentum, because when we went to Leeward Community College initially, they were like: Well, let’s do a noncredit program. And so, we started with this ten-month-long program.  And now, the various programs we have through MA‘O are sort of designed to be like a movement, to have this environment of entrepreneurship, of I want to get ahead, I want to work hard, I want to give to my community.

 

Kukui Maunakea-Forth

Over time, you know, we nurture trust, and respect, and love.

 

Gary Maunakea-Forth

And when kids first come to the farm, they generally come because we’re gonna help them pay for college and give them a stipend. The farming, they could live without some of them.

 

So, in 2003, I think, was our first real official ten-person youth leadership training of these young people just straight out of college.  And one of them went through the whole ten-months, and during that ten months he turned eighteen, and he was all over the place.

 

He was just growing up.  And anyway, he stuck it out, and now, he’s still with us, and he’s twenty-five years old.  And he’s now the assistant farm manager.  His name is Manny.  He represents what we believe is the untapped potential of young men in Waianae.  He can run the farm himself.  I’ve seen him talk story with Alan Wong about food, talk story with Ed Kenney about food.  At one of the fundraisers, he was talking about the farm to Pierre Omidyar, who’s a billionaire.  He represents, I believe, what a young farmer in the State of Hawai‘i should be.  Not just a person who’s able to toil in the fields, but he can talk about the vegetables, he can cook the vegetables.

 

You know, we’ve tried to take the farming part of it, and make it sexy, and make it interesting.  And the best and easiest way to do that is to allow the young people to do, firstly, a bit of everything.

 

M-hm.

 

So, they get typecast weeding a lot.

 

But they also get to do all the other jobs. You know, packing vegetables to go to Town Restaurant, or to go to Whole Foods is one of those things where they start to see the pride in doing it.

 

And the connection.

 

And get connection; yeah.  And so, if they’re at KCC Farmers Market selling vegetables, that’s the ultimate job.  You know, we’re hoping now that the next step for us is that especially some of the young people who really all of a sudden like farming will be farmers, and will either farm larger spaces with us, or go off by themselves.

 

Kukui Maunakea-Forth

I think that’s what I love most about what we do, is that we’re providing this way for young people at an early age to build equity. You know, and it’s not just financial equity, but it’s also equity in terms of the relationships that we’re creating with other people in our community, and with the land that feeds them.

 

Since 2009 when this interview first aired, MAO Organic Farms has continued to do well.  In 2018, a record twenty-one students graduated from the program with high school and college degrees, including from a new four-year program in sustainable community food systems at UH West Oahu.  While we enjoy the vegetables, MAO is really growing the leaders of tomorrow.

 

Now, we head over to Kauai’s North Shore, where Stacy Sproat-Beck is pursuing some similar goals at the WaipāFoundation.  The Waipāeducational mission includes connecting people to the land, using natural resources responsibly, strengthening family, cultural, and community ties, and preserving a way of life.  In 2014, Stacy Sproat-Beck told us why she was a world away from the work her business school professors expected her to pursue.

 

You went to USC, a very fine business school.  What was the experience of going to college at USC like?  I mean, there are a lot of wealthy scions, you know, sons and daughters of magnates.

 

It was kind of a culture shock.  You know, not so much being in a city that size, or in a school that size, because you know, I’d lived here for six years in Honolulu, and gone to Kamehameha.  And this is a big city, too.  But definitely, USC was kind of a culture shock for me, and I didn’t fit in that well. And you know, I’d raise my hand and go: What about family business?  And they go: Oh, no, no, no; don’t talk about that.  You know, family business is really hard.  And I go: Oh, what about nonprofits? And they go: Nonprofits?  You know, maybe we’ll bring somebody in to talk about nonprofits, but nonprofits aren’t really where the money is.  And so, it was kind of a different thing for me. But I still feel like I gained a lot of knowledge and important skills from going there, definitely.  It was an amazing education.

 

When you came home, I think you were aware of what was going on, but weren’t there for a lot of the fireworks.  There was a lot of militance about the way land was going on the North Shore, the push for resort development, and the move away from a rural lifestyle.

 

On Kaua‘i?

 

M-hm.

 

Yeah.  It seems like that was happening.  Yeah; that was happening throughout our childhood and youth, and my parents were really active, and my family was really active and fighting development, and wanting to manage it, really, and not just let it get out of hand.

 

And in fact, they were fighting Kamehameha Schools, where you’d attended, owner of Waipa.

 

Yeah; in the early 80s then, yes, Kamehameha became one of the entities that wanted to develop their landholdings there on the North Shore.  They were in development mode, and so, their plans for Waipāand Lumahai were golf courses, resort communities. Back then, it was all about developing the land so they could make money to support the school at Kapālama and the Estate.  Eventually, after four years of activism and negotiation, and the default of the potential developer, they were able to obtain a lease from Kamehameha for the sixteen-hundred-acre ahupua‘a of Waipā, which is an intact watershed.  It’s amazing.

 

I moved home in ’92, and I really started helping at Waipāin ’94.  And it was really just difficult.  There were a lot of different challenges and issues.

 

And you were doing this as a volunteer?

 

Yeah.  Well, farming with my husband on the side, helping manage Waipāon a volunteer basis.  And then also, I think I was doing promotions for a boat company to actually make money to pay my bills.  When Kamehameha went through strategic planning in 2000-2001, they changed their whole viewpoint on land management and revenue-generating lands, versus lands for culture and education.  And also, kind of right around that same time, all of these other difficulties that we had just sort of went away.

 

What do you do on the sixteen-hundred-acre property?

 

My dad guys envisioned that the original founders, it was to be a land base for the practice and perpetuation of Hawaiian culture. And so, that was their vision. And so, we continue to perpetuate that today by doing programs for kids that connect them with the land, and also, you know, we do enrichment programs and leadership, and cultural programs. And they’re in the garden and harvesting, and also just swimming in the streams and maybe doing a lot of the things that I did as a kid, that we all did.  And I feel like what that does today is, it connects us back to the earth, when a lot of us are just busy living somewhat urban lives.  It’s helping them to make the connection.  So, we do programs for kids.  We do resource management.  You know, we manage learning sites, and sites that we’re restoring. We have a fishpond that we’re restoring along the coast, and then we’ve got lo‘i, taro fields, and gardens, and a native plants nursery.  And then, up in the valley, we’re doing reforestation.  And then, sort of teaching and learning through all of that. And even another thing that’s really amazing to us is that we’ve planted a lot of fruit trees lately, orchards of fruit trees, everything from longan and lychee, to mango, and oranges, and avocado, and ulu, star fruit.  And really to be able to create abundance, lots of food, because you know, we know the importance of having lots of food there, both to feed ourselves and you know, to share with community, and then to market too.  But also being able to take the kids out.  Oh, and mountain apples, too; that’s a big one.  Being able to take the kids out and let them pick their own snacks off the trees.  I mean, we grew up with that, but kids nowadays—

 

They look for a box.

 

It blows their mind when they go out and are able to pick mountain apples and eat them.  It’s just the most amazing experience for them.  And for us, I think, that should be so basic, you know.

 

What’s the goal for WaipāFoundation now in the ahupua‘a?

 

So, our vision is a thriving an abundant ahupua‘a, and a healthy community that’s connected to their resources.  And so, it’s both … yeah, exactly that.  Just thriving and abundant, with land and resources being healthy, and feeding us in many ways, both physically, spiritually, and then also community that is connected to the place that helps to take care of it, and is nourished by it, and also actively manages and takes care of the land.  And I think that’s our vision specifically for Waipā, but also, it’s a larger vision.  You know, Waipācould be just a microcosm of the State or the island, or the world, where everybody is directly connected to the resources that feed them and take care of them.

 

Our next guest may not have started out with quite the same intentions as Stacy Sproat-Beck or the Maunakea-Forths.  Richard Ha went into the family farming business, and the founded his own farm on the Hāmākua Coast of Hawai‘i Island.  Along the way, Ha found that his business expertise and entrepreneurial vision prepared him to make progress on challenging issues like sustainability, food security, and renewable energy.  Ha always tries to stay ahead of curve, anticipating the next big need. It all started with the can-do attitude he learned from his dad.

 

When you saw your dad farming, and you were playing with tomatoes, did you think: I want to grow up and be a farmer?

 

No.  Actually, what happened was, I ended up wanting to go into business or into having some kind of organization to be in charge of.  And the reason that happened was because Dad used tell stories when I was about ten years old.  We had this kitchen table that was like a picnic table, with a bench and everything. And he would tell stories about impossible situations.  You know, a business situation, or he had all kinds of different situations.  And it would come down to he came up against a stonewall, there was no way to figure it out, and he’d pound the table, and the dishes would all fly.  He would say—boom; Not no can; can!  I remember that pretty clearly.

 

Not no can; can.

 

Yeah.

 

It’s about problem-solving and the will to overcome the problem.

 

Yeah.  It was just a given that you just don’t come up to a problem and look at and say: Oh, that’s it.  You know, there was always a way around it.

 

What were you gonna do with your accounting degree?

 

You know, actually, I didn’t really know.  I just knew that I had an accounting degree, and if anything came up, I was gonna do it.  But it just so happened Pop asked me to come back and run his chicken farm. I said: Okay, well, I don’t have anything planned; I’ll do that.  So, I came back, helped him run the poultry farm, and in the course of that, met the supermarket people, learned how marketing and that kinda stuff worked.

 

And you learned from the ground, up on that end; right?

 

Yeah; yeah.  I mean, we raised chickens when we were little, but the business end of it was different, you know.  And with an accounting degree, it helped me to analyze stuff.  And so, what happened was, we had forty acres, and twenty-five of it was in the chicken farm, so we had some extra land.  And so, we needed to find out what could we do with no more money.  ‘Cause I only had a three hundred dollar credit card.  Back then it was hard to get a three hundred dollar credit card. So, we started doing some research, and found out that there was about six million pounds of Chiquita Bananas being imported into Hawai‘i.  So, I said: Oh, man, if we could get into that, we should be able to do okay.  So, we started trading chicken manure for banana keiki, and started two acres.

 

At what point did you have your own farm?

 

Well, yeah; that was my dad’s farm, and we made it into a four-way corporation with my brothers.  And then, from there, I went to Kapoho to lease some land over there. And that’s when it started, maybe two years after we started the first banana farm.  And then, when the sugar plantations started closing down, we were able to move closer in to Hilo, at Kea‘au.  So, we moved the farm there.  At Kea‘au, we expanded to three hundred acres, and by then, we became the largest banana farm in the State.

 

Are you confident that local people will buy local produce, even if it’s more expensive?

 

Well, you know, it’s really what we need to do to support our local farmers, because to be food-secure, farmers gotta make money. And come the time when we feel like this is really a serious situation, it’ll happen.  And everybody’s talking about food security.  Now, how do we do that?  And the answer is, if the farmer can make money, the farmer will farm. So, it doesn’t get much more complex than that.  So, in an effort to figure out ways to help farmers make money, you know, with the help of the Department of Ag and the legislators, and a bunch of people, we pushed through legislation so that farmers could get cheap loans, low interest, long-term loans for renewable energy projects.  And how we look at it is how it affects our workers, our community, and the environment.  Every Thursday, our workers can come and just pick up all the different things we grow—bananas and tomatoes, and whatever, you know, as much as they need for their family.  And we have profit sharing, although it’s been tough the last few years.  We have profit sharing, and we want to look, you know, toward whatever we can do to help them with the food side of it. Because it’s hard for us to raise our workers’ salaries, because we can’t raise the price.  Everybody’s having hard time.  So, we have to figure out other ways to help our workers.

 

Keaukaha Elementary School, a Hawaiian Homelands community, and a school that was in the academic basement for twenty years; you adopted a class there.

 

Yeah.  What happened was, I volunteered to be on this thirty meter telescope subcommittee on the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board.  And so, when you talk about telescopes, you automatically talk about the culture.  Maua Kea, you need to talk about the culture.  If you talk about the culture, you end up at Keaukaha.  It’s a seventy-five-year-old Hawaiian Homes community.  And so, that’s where I ended up.  Yeah; so I went over there, talked to Kumu Lehua about telescopes, and had to learn a lot the culture.  I didn’t know as much as I do now.  I was mostly worried about farming.  But you know, the more I got into it, the more I needed to learn.  And then, what was ironic was, here I am on the thirty meter telescope subcommittee, and you’re standing in Keaukaha, you look at the mountain; there’s hundreds of millions of dollars of investment up there.  You look back at the school and the community. So, you know, there’s nothing here of tangible relationship to that.  But whatever the case, we decided this no can; we had to do something.

 

What do you see yourself doing in ten years?

 

You know, it’s hard to say what it’ll be, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be something that I can’t imagine now.  Because we always end up doing something that’s new and different.  Yeah; so I expect that it’ll be something new and different, but it’ll be something, for sure.

 

And it’ll be in farming?

 

I can’t even say that.  I don’t want to just say one particular thing.  But it really has to do with where our society is going, what our circumstance will be.

 

Since this interview first aired in 2008, we can now tell you what Richard Ha is doing.  In 2016, he closed Hāmākua Springs Country Farms and was awarded one of the first Hawaii licenses to grow and sell medical marijuana with a company called Lau Ola.  In the fall of 2018, he left Lau Ola after steering the company through its startup phase.  He said he’ll continue in the agriculture and energy industries.

 

Richard Ha, Stacy Sproat-Beck, and Gary and Kukui Maunakea-Forth all continue to grow their own enterprises, while building better communities across our state. We thank them for their vision and can-do attitude, and for sharing their stories with us.  We hope they’ve inspired you.  Mahalo for watching.  For Long Story Short and PBS Hawai‘i, I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.  To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

Kukui Maunakea-Forth

There’s no one right way.  And we’ve all sort of figured out this thing that we bring everything to the table, you put it down, if your idea is better than ours, then hey, we’re gonna go with your idea.  And that’s how it even happened with that very first class.

 

Stacy Sproat-Beck

Things have really just grown like crazy since then, and gone in an amazing direction.  I feel like the lessons learned from those really hard times are kind of what maybe grounds me and the organization in sort of humility and remembering that things don’t always come easy.

 

Richard Ha

Pop taught us a lot of lessons, and it had to do with survival.  Just do what you gotta do, and plan for the future, and you know, make decisions. You gotta do it, do it now, kinda thing like that.

 

And not no can; can.

 

Yeah; absolutely.

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Richard Ha

 

Original air date: Tues., Nov. 11, 2008

 

Richard Ha, Visionary Farmer

 

On this episode of Long Story Short, Leslie Wilcox sits down to share stories with Hawaii Island farmer Richard Ha.

 

Never heard of him? Well, Richard Ha isn’t your average farmer. He’s been called a visionary farmer. An innovative small business owner, Ha offers his employees profit sharing, has found a way to generate electricity on his property outside of Hilo, initiated an adopt-a-class program at Keaukaha Elementary School, advocates native Hawaiian practices of ahupua‘a and writes a blog on his website.

 

Interested in hearing more about him? Then tune in for an engaging conversation with Richard Ha, a visionary farmer, on Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Richard Ha Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Aloha no, I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Welcome to another Long Story Short. Today we get to meet a man who wears many hats: visionary farmer, Vietnam veteran, college graduate, innovative small business owner who offers his employees profit sharing and who’s found a way to generate electricity on his property, community activist who initiated an adopt-a-class program at a local school, and Hawaii Island grower Richard Ha.

 

Farmers, in order to be successful, need to understand complex issues of diversification, sustainability, resource management, land use and planning, even global economic cycles, as well as farming. Hawaii Island farmer Richard Ha even follows the worldwide price of oil, advocates native Hawaiian practices of ahupua‘a and writes a blog on his website. Interested in meeting him? So was I. Let’s start our conversation on the farm. Richard Ha is a farmer partly because his father was. But his father only became a farmer when he received 40 acres of farmland outside of Hilo through the GI Bill.

 

What kind of farming did he do to start off with?

 

Well, I remember him growing tomatoes, and cucumbers; and small kid time, we would go pick the tomatoes and have tomato fights. [chuckle]

 

So much for that harvest.

 

Yeah. [chuckle] Yeah.

 

And had he been trained in farming, or was he picking it up as he went?

 

No; he didn’t have any training in farming. It was pretty much, you know, back then I think a lot of people understood about farming and gardening, and it was kinda second nature. It wasn’t difficult to do.

 

They were closer to the elements, weren’t they? They noticed the cause and effect of the winds, and that kind of thing.

 

Oh, yeah. Tutu folks were taro farmers down at Maku on the ocean. But what I remembered about that time was that they had few pigs. But the big deal about it wasn’t that they had few pigs in the pen. There was a stone wall around the property, and they’d leave the gate open. And what would happen is, the wild pigs would come in. So they—

 

And they’d catch them?

 

Yeah. [chuckle] Yeah.

 

When you saw your dad farming, and you were playing with tomatoes, did you think, I want to grow up and be a farmer?

 

No. Actually, what happened was I ended up wanting to go into business or into having some kind of organization to be in charge of. And the reason that happened was because Dad used to tell stories when I was about ten years old. We had this kitchen table that was like a picnic table; bench and everything. And he would tell stories about impossible situations; you know, a business situation—he had all kinds of different situations. And it would come down to—he came up against a stone wall, there was no way to figure it out, and he’d pound the table, and the dishes would all fly, and he would say—boom! “Not, ‘No can.’ Can!” [chuckle] I remember that pretty clearly.

 

Not, ‘No can.’ Can!

 

Yeah.

 

It’s about problem solving and the will to overcome the problem.

 

Yeah; it was just a given that you just don’t come up to a problem, and look at it and say, Oh, that’s it. You know, there was always a way around it.

 

Was it hard working the farm in those days? Was that a tough way to make a living?

 

The chicken farm was really tough; yeah. And the reason for it is because he had too many chickens for the Big Island, and not enough volume to supply Oahu. So he was caught in between there. But yeah, it was kinda tough.

 

So would you say you were middle class, poor?

 

Oh, I thought we were—later on, I found out we were real poor. [chuckle] But at the time, you don’t have a concept of being poor, yeah? But yeah, later on, I found out we were actually pretty poor. I think you’re pretty poor if your mom is making pancakes, and then you can’t—I don’t know which is baking powder that would make it rise, and get fluffy. We didn’t have that. [chuckle]

 

Were you conscious that you didn’t have what you needed?

 

You know, not really, except for maybe Christmastime. And at Christmastime, my aunts from uh, Oahu would send us toys. And that was something you looked forward to all year long. You know, and it may be just little toy plastic soldiers. You know, so we didn’t have very many Christmas presents, but that was extremely, extremely valuable to us small kids.

 

Well, normally, what did you use as toys?

 

Make your own.

 

Like what?

 

Make sugarcane rockets. Cut the sugarcane leaf, and peel it back a little bit, fly ‘em as far as you can fly ‘em. [chuckle]

 

Make swords out of, you know, the hedge, and fight sword. All kinds of stuff like sling shot.

 

And that was good fun, right?

 

Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I don’t know if anybody was any happier having anything more than that, actually.

 

Richard Ha’s father didn’t teach him, “If can; can. If no can; no can.” He taught him, “Not ‘No can.’ Can!” – meaning that every problem, no matter how impossible it seems, can be solved. And Richard embraces that can do, make do with what you have attitude. Although he was raised on a farm, Richard didn’t go into farming until much later. Straight out of high school, he went to college to study business.

 

Well, actually, you know, I didn’t know what I was going to do, exactly. I knew kind of that I’d like to get into business, and so if I was going to college, it would be good to major in business. You know, so I went to college, and I spent two years, and I finally flunked out. Just too much things to do, people to see; stuff like that. [chuckle] And it was at the time when uh, if you flunked out of school, you would get drafted and go to Vietnam.

 

You flunked out?

 

Yeah; flunked out. And got drafted, went to Vietnam. But then, you know, I had the opportunity to apply for officers candidate school, which I took. And I eventually became an officer. Yeah. So then you have to really get serious, because you know, end up in Vietnam—you know, in the situation where it’s life and death. And what I learned in Vietnam was really important to me in later life. I was an artillery officer attached to a infantry unit. And the rule was—and it didn’t have to be spoken; leaving someone behind is not an option. Not even a consideration. It’s, we all come out, or nobody comes out. Kinda like that. And it’s a good lesson.

 

Did you ever have to take a lot of risk in order to make that happen?

 

Some. You know, more than you’d like to. But you know, it’s just something you have to do. It’s not—you don’t even weigh it. Yeah.

 

And when you were in Vietnam, were you concerned about what you were hearing from the U.S. about the objection to the war, and the protests against the war?

 

No; uh, actually, you know, I looked upon the thing as a patriotic thing to do and just assuming everybody was doing the right thing. And so my main concern was the people we were you know, responsible for, and we had to take care of each other. And beyond that, I didn’t go there.

 

In a sense, well, you were leading a group meant for business. You know, life and death business.

 

Kind of, you know, yeah, when you think about that. Yeah?

 

Did you have any close calls, personally?

 

Actually, yeah. And probably because of what Pop taught me. The situation was like this. We were in a rice paddy, and we were coming to this village. And then we got incoming sniper fire. So we all ran into depression. And I looked around; I said, Holy smokes, this is not a place to be. So I grabbed the radio operator; I said, Let’s go. So we jumped up and ran about fifty feet or so, and bullets flying and everything like that. And a few seconds after that, a grenade landed just where we left. But it was kinda like well, Pop taught us a lot of lessons, and it had to do with survival. Just do what you gotta do, and plan for the future, and if it—you know, make decisions. You gotta do it, do it now. Kinda thing like that.

 

And not no can; can.

 

[chuckle] Yeah; absolutely.

 

So you came back alive from Vietnam.

 

M-hm. Yeah; and then at that time, I had some time to grow up. There was six years in the military as an Army officer. You know, things are pretty serious. It gave me a lot of time to think about going back to school. And going back to school, I knew I wanted to go into business. But this time, I figured, I’m gonna major in accounting, because accounting will help me keep score.

 

M-m.

 

And then, that’s what I did. And it worked out pretty good.

 

You liked it?

 

I like keeping score. I never did work in accounting.

 

You didn’t?

 

No.

 

But you liked learning it.

 

Yeah.

 

But what were you gonna do with your accounting degree?

 

You know, actually, I didn’t really know. I just knew that I had an accounting degree, if there was anything came up, I was gonna do it. But it just so happened, Pop asked me to come back and run his chicken farm. I said, Okay, well, I don’t have anything planned; I’ll do that. So I came back, helped him run the poultry farm. And in the course of that, met the supermarket people, learned how marketing and that kind of stuff worked. And—

 

And you learned from the ground up on that end, right?

 

Yeah; yeah. Didn’t have—I mean, we raised chickens when we were little. But the business end of it, it was different. You know, and with accounting degree, it helped me to analyze stuff. And so what happened was, we had forty acres, and twenty-five of it was in the chicken farm. So we had some extra land. And so we needed to find out what could we do with no more money, ‘cause we—I only had a three hundred dollar credit card, back when it was hard to get a three hundred dollar credit card. [chuckle] So started doing some research, and found out that there was about six million pounds of Chiquita bananas being imported into Hawaii. So I said, Ho, man, if we could get into that, we should be able to do okay. So we started trading chicken manure for banana keiki, and started two acres. But you know, we didn’t have a tractor, we didn’t have anything; just had my Toyota Land Cruiser. So we’d make lines by driving down, knocking the California grass down, get a sickle, cut a hole, get a ‘o‘o and shovels, and planted bananas. That’s how we started. [chuckle]

 

Wow. Hoeing by land cruiser. [chuckle] Was that a success the first time out?

 

Well, you know when you only got two acres and you’re actually working in the chicken farm, there’s not that much risk. You know, it was all labor. You know, so it wasn’t too much risk. But what it did was, it helped me learn.

 

At what point did you have your own farm?

 

Well, yeah; that was my dad’s farm, and we made it into a four-way corporation with my brothers. And then from there, I went to Kapoho to lease some land over there. And that’s when it started; maybe two years after we started the first banana farm. And then when the sugar plantation started closing down, we were able to move closer into Hilo at Keaau. So we moved the farm there. So there was little bit more soil. And the time we got into big business was, I had an Opal station wagon. It’s a small, little thing; maybe you can hold five people. And as long as our employees were only five, that was fine. But as soon as we went to seven and eight, we went into big business. Because it was communication, people were thinking you know, that they weren’t getting the right information because they weren’t the car with me. [chuckle] And then we started realizing, you know, you want to be good to everybody, you want to be liked and all that; but the best you can do is be fair. And once I realized that, then that was pretty important. Yeah.

 

And then you got two vehicles. [chuckle]

 

We got two vehicles, and we got more workers—

 

More land?

 

And more land. At Keaau, we ended up with—expanded to three hundred acres. And by then, we became the largest banana farm in the State. Yeah, but you know, we were still basically local boys.

 

Local boy Richard Ha is more than just a farmer. He’s also a blogger, operating a website he updates several times a week. He recently gave the keynote speech at a local college graduation. And he orchestrated a community effort to help students at Keaukaha Elementary School. Located on Hawaiian Homelands with an underserved population, Keaukaha faced federal action under the No Child Left Behind Act – until a new principal, Lehua Veincent, stepped in – and invited in – community support.

 

Keaukaha Elementary School; a Hawaiian Homelands community, and a school that was in the academic basement for twenty years. You adopted a class there.

 

Yeah. What happened was, I volunteered to be on this thirty-meter telescope subcommittee on the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board. And so when you talk about telescopes, you automatically talk about the culture; Mauna Kea. You need to talk about the culture. If you talk about the culture, and you end up at Keaukaha. It’s a seventy-five-year-old Hawaiian Homes community. And so that’s where I ended up. Yeah, so I went over there, talked to Kumu Lehua about telescopes, and had to learn a lot about the culture. I didn’t know as much as I do now. I was mostly worried about farming. But you know, the more I got into it, the more I needed to learn. But so talking to Kumu Lehua, I invited them to come to our farm to—you know, just an excursion. And in the course of the discussion, you know, I asked him, Where else you folks go on excursion? He says, We don’t go on excursion. And you don’t go; how come? Too much money; three hundred dollars for the bus, we cannot afford that. So what we do is we take walking excursions around the school in the neighborhood. I couldn’t believe it. I thought every kid went on excursions. But they didn’t. And then what was ironic was, here I am on the thirty- meter telescope subcommittee, and you’re standing in Keaukaha, you look at the mountain, there’s hundreds of millions of dollars of investment up there. You look back at the school and the community. So you know, there’s nothing here of tangible relationship to that. And but whatever the case; we decided, this no can. We had to do something. So the simplest thing that came to mind was adopt a child thing.

 

It’s amazing. This is a Homelands community that really is right in Hilo, right a walk away from Ken’s House of Pancakes. But um, they had been kinda shut out, and they felt like they didn’t have anything going for them, and the school was in disarray for many years.

 

Yeah. But you know, Kumu Lehua is a special guy. What he did was, he brought the community together, and tied the community and the school together, and then the relationship with the business community made the community and the kids see the bigger world. They’re part of a bigger thing now.

 

We’ve talked with Kumu Lehua at PBS Hawaii, and uh, we know he looks at everything through a prism of pono. You know, what’s—

 

Yeah.

 

— not who’s right, but what is the right thing to do at this time.

 

Yeah. Yeah; and he’s real consistent that way. And it’s a wonderful thing.

 

Do you hear young people say, I want to be a farmer?

 

More and more nowadays, because I think a lot of people are starting to see that this is a serious business. We’re about feeding people. Yeah.

 

Yeah; and they can really identify with hunger, and with the need for food. You’re a Hawaiian who knows the issues. The community has been split over the use of the mountain, which is a considered a sacred mountain for astronomy purposes. What do you think; what are your thoughts on that?

 

Well, you know, I think with the oil crisis coming up now, the world has changed. You know, several years ago, when the oil—our supply prices started going up, and we didn’t really know what was going on. But after researching it a little bit, we found out it was related to oil prices. As the oil prices went up, fertilizer, chemical, everything else went up. And so we started looking around; gee, now—and I went to the Peak Oil Conference in Houston, and we found out that the world oil supply is not gonna be able to keep up with the world demand. And if you think about that a while, then you realize all these different things will follow. You know. Planes are gonna have a hard time flying, people gonna have less discretionary income, fertilizer costs are going up, and all these different things. So we needed to kinda change the way we’re doing business. So as soon as we came back, as soon as I came back, we actually had thought about making our own electricity, but when I came back, it was like, Boy, we gotta get going soon.

 

We have to.

 

No more choice; we have to.

 

How are you gonna make your own electricity?

 

Well, we have a flume that runs through our property, and it was for the plantation. Yeah; and for those who weren’t around during the plantation days, it’s a water line. It’s a waterway, Yeah. And what they do is, they take water from the stream, and just divert it to where they want it to go. And in lot of cases, it was to throw the sugarcane in and run it down to the mill. So it was one of those kinda flumes that we have; and it just was sitting there. So we got a consultant, and sure enough, we could put in an eighteen-inch pipe about this big. And we could generate enough electricity to power fifteen forty-foot reefer Matson containers. So that’s quite a bit. Which turns out to be about twenty-five percent more than we use. And our electricity bill now is fifteen thousand dollars a month. So we’re gonna be able to pay for all that electricity, and still have twenty-five percent extra.

 

What are you gonna do with that?

 

Well, we’ve got all kinds of plans. We’re thinking that with the excess electricity, we can do a plug-in thing so that our workers could plug in their hybrid cars in the future, as a benefit for working for the company. That was the first thing we thought of. Another thing is, because fertilizer prices are going up, we want to take the waste bananas, feed it to fish, use the fish waste, run it through a biofilter, convert it into fertilizer, fertilize the plants, and pump it back up with free electricity. And then even, you could fool the plants into thinking it’s winter, when it’s summer. [chuckle]

 

Wow. And so pretty soon, you won’t have a fifteen thousand dollar a month electricity bill?

 

Yeah; that—

 

 

That’s on the way?

 

That’s true. Now, all the farmers and everywhere on the island in the State face the same situation, rising fuel and fertilizer costs. And everybody’s talking about food security. Now, how do we do that? And uh, the answer is, if the farmer can make money, the farmer will farm. So it doesn’t get much more complex than that. So in an effort to figure out ways to help farmers make money, we went—you know, with the help of the Department of Ag, and the legislators, and a bunch of people, we pushed through legislation so that farmers could get cheap loans, low interest, long term loans for renewable energy projects.

 

And does that mean your problems are over?

 

Oh, no.

 

Your challenges are pau?

 

No; no, no, no. We know that one day, the boat not going come. Like, you know, you talk to a lot of the Hawaiian people; it’s a given that sooner or later, there will be supply disruptions.

 

What is the stat I heard, that because we depend so much on imported food, if we don’t get a barge in for ten days, we’ll be virtually out.

 

Oh, yeah. Yeah. We’re talking about probably seven days worth of food supplies. But if there was a hint of something disrupting the supply, people would just go down and clean the stores out in two days. My thought. So it’s a tough place to be. So what we need to do is we need to have more farmers. We need to support farmers more, we need to have more food security. So that’s really what we’re reaching for. Now, the objective is to feed people. So now we have to have a calorie— we have to have the concern about what is the mix of calories. So that’s why we’re thinking of doing aquaculture for protein, and leasing land to other farmers so they can do what they’re good at, and we do what we’re good at. We all bring everything down to the farmers market, and people won’t have to travel as far.

 

Are you confident that local people will buy local produce, even if it’s more expensive?

 

Well, you know, it’s really what we need to do, to support our local farmers. Because to be food secure, farmers gotta make money. And come the time when we feel like this is really a serious situation, it’ll happen. I’m confident it will.

 

Do you think we’ll be motivated to do the right thing, go in this direction, without first a disaster? Usually, we learn from disaster. Usually, we’re not really good about looking ahead and saying, Let’s prevent a disaster.

 

You know, actually, I’m pretty optimistic that it’ll start happening. As a matter of fact, I see it happening already. You know, so it’s just gonna be a matter of time. Yeah; I’m pretty optimistic.

 

Farmers, by their very nature, plan. They plant and plan. And then plant again. So it’s only natural that Richard Ha would consider the future as much as he does. And it’s refreshing to see his optimism and activism looking toward Hawaii’s future.

 

Sustainability means basically surviving for the long run. And how we look it at is how it affects our workers, our community, and the environment. So our workers, I just mentioned a little bit about, you know, every Thursday, our workers can come and just pick up all the different things we grow; bananas and tomatoes, and whatever. You know, as much as they need for their family. And we have profit sharing, although it’s been tough the last few years. We have profit sharing, and we want to look, you know, toward—whatever we can do to help them with the food side of it end. Because it’s hard for us to raise our workers’ salaries, because we can’t raise the price; everybody’s having a hard time. So we have to figure out other ways to help our workers.

 

Do these look like particularly bad times for you? I know that tourism is down, and I mean, everybody’s talking about soft economy. How is it affecting you? Flowers have had it rough lately, anyway.

 

Yeah. It is pretty tricky. But you know, we always plan five, ten years out. We’re always looking for where we need to be in the future. And we already know that this is happening, it’s gonna get worse; so we’re already moving in that direction. So I think we’re gonna be okay.

 

What do you see yourself doing in ten years?

 

You know, it’s hard to say what it’ll be; but I’m pretty sure it’ll be something. What, I can’t imagine now. Because we always end up doing something that’s new and different. Yeah; so I expect that it’ll be something new and different, but it’ll be something, for sure.

 

And it’ll be in farming?

 

I can’t even say that. [chuckle] Yeah; I don’t want to just say one particular thing. But it really has to do with where our society is going, what our circumstance will be. And it has a lot to do with alternate energy, I think.

 

How that’s gonna shape our future?

 

Yeah. Yeah.

 

 

Well, like it or not, the future’s on its way! And the best we can do is prepare for it. Mahalo to Richard Ha for growing our awareness of what the future holds and showing us what one farmer is doing to prepare for it. Mahalo to you for joining me for this Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii, looking forward to seeing you in the future. A hui hou kakou!

 

 

I read a review of your fruit that said that, if you’ve gotten used to these cardboard tasting tomatoes that you buy at some places, you gotta taste Richard Ha’s tomatoes ‘cause they’re just full and juicy, and …

 

Yeah.

 

Is that true?

 

Yeah; it is.

 

[chuckle] I suspected you—

 

Yeah.

 

–you were gonna say that.

 

And there is a reason for it. We actually test the fruit every week for sweetness. Because it’s about value to the customers. And so what we try to do, if you think about value, really, it’s about taste for tomatoes. So that’s what we do. We spend a lot of time monitoring that. So; yeah. [chuckle]