story by Leslie Lang
photos by Macario
When Big Island farmer Richard Ha started farming in the 1970s, it was with twenty-five acres from his father and a credit card with a $300 limit. “And it was hard to get that credit card!” he laughs now.
His plan? Bananas. A blight some years before had changed the growing landscape in the Islands; most of Hawai‘i’s bananas were being imported. With his meager resources, Ha traded chicken manure from his father’s poultry farm for banana plants and asked supermarkets to save him their empty boxes. Thirty-some-years later, Ha runs the largest banana-farming operation in the United States. His two farms, in Kea‘au and Pepe‘ekeo, cover more than 600 acres and produce close to ten million bananas per year. Ha’s Pepe‘ekeo farm even provides its small, sweet apple bananas to the high-end food catalog company Harry and David, meaning Ha’s bananas have ended up in kitchens across the country—even Paul Newman’s.
It’s a tale suited to a fruit with a global history. The banana originated on the Malay peninsula and was first described in Buddhist writings from India dating to the sixth century B.C. As people began to move about the world, so did the banana: None other than Alexander the Great is credited with taking the banana from India to the West; traders took it into Africa, the Caribbean and Central America. (Arabian traders gave the fruit its name, “banan,” Arabic for finger.) Bananas first arrived in Hawai‘i courtesy of Polynesian settlers who brought the plants with them on voyaging canoes and protected them against the harshness of the sea journey. Once here, bananas flourished. In traditional society, it was kapu for women to eat certain bananas. Now, though, times are different, and Ha’s bananas are enjoyed throughout the Islands.
Ha says it was his father who inspired him to go into business. “He told stories about having to solve this problem or that problem and make everything work,” he says. “He made it interesting, exciting. I always wanted to do that.” And Ha’s taken it a step further. Back before it was fashionable, he decided to concentrate on sustainable agriculture, which he defines as “having to do with the workers, the community and the environment.” They aren’t empty words. Some of his environmentally friendly strategies are as simple as growing grass around and between banana plants—the grass captures fertilizer before it reaches and pollutes streams. Ha’s banana farm was one of six national finalists for the Patrick Madden award, a sustainable farming commendation given by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was the first in the world to be certified “Eco-OK” by the Rainforest Alliance.
A tan sixty-year-old with graying hair, Ha is as down-to-earth as he is successful: Dressed in muddy work boots and sporting a cheap plastic pen clipped to his pocket, he never takes for granted the spectacular views from his greenhouses, where you can see majestic Mauna Kea and a panoramic ocean view. “And I go to work in shorts and a T-shirt,” he says. “What else is there? Sometimes I’ll call friends on the mainland Northeast about our cool winter weather— seventy-four degrees, maybe seventy considering wind chill. If it got any worse,” says the contented farmer, “I might have to wear long pants.”