A couple days ago I went to breakfast at ‘Imiloa with my friends Wallace Ishibashi, of the Big Island Labor Alliance and the Royal Order of Kamehameha, and Clyde Hayashi,of Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust.
We're sailing across the Pacific to renew our ties to the sea and its life-sustaining strength. The ocean is the origin of life, and it continues to give us air to breathe, fish to eat, and nourishes our soul as well. As threatened as the ocean is now, however, it soon can no longer provide us with these essential life services.
Sailing together, we seek the wisdom of our ancestors and the knowledge of scientists to keep the Pacific healthy and give our grandchildren a future.
We have chosen a motto for the whole project, which reflects the spiritual thinking in Polynesian culture about the sea, which has the same life-force running through its water as runs through our bodies, and how to treat this precious resource to not disturb Tangaroa, the God of the Sea. The following saying is a poetic way to say "be respectful and gentle":
"Move your paddle silently through the water"
Later, I had a meeting with Patrick Kahawaiola'a and Mapuana Waipa, the president and vice president respectively of the Keaukaha Community Association, and our conversation went to the schedule for the arrival of the canoes. Patrick folks are going to arrange the ceremony.
As of Thursday, the canoes passed the equator and were in the doldrums. You can follow their progress. The first place they will arrive in Hawai‘i is Hilo harbor.
I was tickled that Mapuana was so pumped up about there being women in the crews. I thought to myself: I bet they sent equal amounts of men and woman when the first people came to Hawai‘i many years ago. How could it have worked any other way?
Here's the most recent blog entry, straight from the vaka/va‘a/wa‘a ("canoe" in various Polynesian languages):
Day 55. This is our home. This va’a (canoe), simple with inspiration from our Polynesian ancestors, its smooth wooden platform connecting two sturdy hulls lying below- this is our island… this is our world. I heard someone say recently “our canoe is our island, and our island our canoe,” as such the lessons and practices inherent on one are reflective in the other. Gaualofa, this island which has sheltered us, transported us and looked after us all so soundly, has been able to do so only as a result of care and consideration from everyone involved. We are constantly reminded to look after her should we expect to be looked after in turn. On this va’a, all are aware of the finite nature of the resources w...READ THE REST
When we were first getting started in bananas at Koa‘e back in the late 1970s, our farm was way out in the Wild West, where our close neighbors were the original “sustainable farmers.” Some people called them hippies. We just thought of them as fellow farmers making their own way.
Their houses were open, with mosquito netting to protect against flying insects. They had no electricity or running water.
They were on catchment water systems and we, and they, were concerned that our overspray did not hurt them. We were very conscious of their proximity and we took care to communicate closely with them. It made us very aware of how our operation could affect our neighbors, and helped us become the sustainable farmers we are today.
The neighbors occasionally had full moon parties and I went once. It was an experience walking around in the bright moonlight, in and out of the shadows of giant mango trees, running into people I’d never met before. I think the boys went to their parties frequently. I heard the people who lived closer to the ocean were clothing-optional, but I did not know that for sure. They were good neighbors and we got along very well.
The boys and I were very close. Jason and Bert danced and played music for Johnny Lum Ho, and they always won the Merrie Monarch competition. During the summers we all hung out around down the beach at Leleiwi, and when it got too cold we hung out at the Ponderosa; that was the name of my Uncle George and Aunty Agnes’s house on Chong Street in Kaumana.
Our farm grew to 55 acres in a short time and we all were very proud of what we were doing. Jerryl and I started to go to Hawai‘i Banana Industry Association annual meetings on O‘ahu, where people were very impressed we were coming up so quickly. We learned a lot by associating with the oldtimers and the University of Hawai‘i people.
On a farm tour of Kauai with some other Hawai‘i Banana Industry Association farmers once, we went to Waimea Canyon. We stood overlooking a cliff where there was a rope restraint you weren't supposed to step beyond. One of the local guys, who was wearing brand new jogging shoes, stepped over it. We were considered large farmers and kind of leaders in the industry then, but he didn't know us personally. I said, "I can have your shoes?" It meant: If you slip and fall, don't waste your good, expensive shoes. Poho, give them to me before you go.
I wanted him to know we all came from the same place. You'd have to have come up the hard way to value shoes that were going over a cliff. It was so funny. His wife jerked, he jerked and then we all laughed knowingly. It was a good moment.
Jerryl’s truck could hold three people and my Opel station wagon could fit five. We had no problems with communication when everyone could fit in the two vehicles. But soon the farm and our number of employees grew too large for that, and after that we needed to make a special effort to keep everyone informed.
This was our first step into the world of big business. I realized then that it was not possible to be all things to all people. The best we could do was to be fair.
I lived in the condominiums above Hilo High School. I had a barbell set in an upstairs bedroom and that’s where I first started lifting weights. My next door neighbors and close friends were Ron and Penny Mau. Penny became a school principal and Ron is now a very, very well-known entomologist at the University of Hawai‘i College of Tropical Agriculture.
We were sending a steady amount of bananas to Oahu and our farm was growing. I had a degree in accounting, which I had studied to help me keep score. But I had no actual experience in the accounting field, and as much as I tried, I could not develop an effective bookkeeping system.
Finally I shoved all my records into a banana box and took them to an old veteran accountant. I told him I was looking to hire someone to keep the books.
I thought he might like to know that I had an accounting degree, expecting him to acknowledge that this was a good thing going forward. Instead, without looking up, he told me, "That's why you're dangerous.”
After starting a banana farm at Waiakea Uka under the corporate name Ha Bros., Inc., I decided to start another farm as a separate entity, and I started looking for parcels. But land was scarce then. It was around 1978, and the sugar industry had most of the good land.
There was one 60-acre parcel available, which was owned by Elvin and Kay Kamoku together with Bill Kaina. Elvin was my Pop's old diving buddy and at the time he was the Big Island fire chief. Bill Kaina was the pastor of Kaumakapili Church and later of Kawaihao Church. I leased the land from them.
The parcel was located at Koa'e, which is a 40-minute drive from Hilo. The Pahoa bypass hadn't been built yet so we drove through the middle of Pahoa on the way to work. You went towards Kapoho, past Lava Tree State Park, past old Kapoho town, which was covered by lava, to the four stop sign corner and then back toward Hilo on Beach Road. You passed the Lyman cinder cones, and then the pavement ended and the road went under tall mango trees. The farm was about a hundred yards on the left.
The land had been planted in papayas and there was no soil at all. But a foot or more of cinder, from the 1960 eruption that destroyed Kapoho town, covered the entire parcel. The lava fountain had been more than 1000 feet high in 1960, and the prevailing wind blew the cinder onto the land.
We were kind of new to farming and we didn’t know we weren’t supposed to be able to grow bananas where there was no soil.
Fortunately, the papaya farmer before us had had a D9 bulldozer rip deep rows through the pahoehoe lava, and that’s where he planted his papayas. We didn’t have any money so we planted 45 acres of bananas in those papaya rows. Luckily for us, the ripped pahoehoe allowed the banana plant roots to go down far enough to reach moisture.
Mom, Pop and I planted the first bananas. Later we hired people to help us to plant and take care of the growing farm. Our original banana crew consisted of Miles Kotaki, Jerryl Mauhili, Jason, Jolan and Jocky Keahilihau, Puggy Nathaniel, Jolson Nakamura and Bert Naihe. Most of them came from Keaukaha and Panaewa. Jerryl was the farm manager.
We planted the bananas as deep down amidst the ripped slabs of pahoehoe as we could, then we covered them up with a mound of cinder. This was all done by hand using picks, shovels and o'o bars because we could not afford a tractor. We filled buckets and walked down the rows throwing fertilizer by hand.
As the bananas started bearing fruit, the guys would harvest the bunches, bring them to the closest road and lean them up against a banana plant. When the bunches were all harvested they would come by, cut the hands off and put them in two papaya bins we had on a flat bed trailer.
We were operating hand to mouth, and one day the two papaya bins were repossessed, so we had nothing to put the bananas in. Jerryl decided to just haul them on the trailer without any bins. So they put a bed of banana leaves down on the trailer and lined up banana hands, one inside the other, from one end to the other. They put a layer of banana leaves on top of the bananas and then a second level of banana hands, then a third and a fourth and on up until there were seven layers.
The first time they passed through Pahoa town like that, heads swiveled: "What was that?!"
We would drop off the trailer at the Waiakea Uka packing house after work, around 5 in the evening, and Mom would cut the bananas up and have them packed before 6:30 the following morning. It went on like that for several months—maybe a whole year. I don't know how we would have done it without Mom's help.
My brother-in-law Dennis Vierra is a guy who can do anything related to construction, and he helped us build a packing house. Until then we had no shelter, no toilet—just a lot of determination.
Dennis built a structure where we could hang the bunches and roll them on a rail to a place where we could cut off the hands and place them in a tank full of water. The hands were floated across the tank, where they were cut into clusters and packed into banana boxes. We thought we were in the big time.
It turned out that nobody really wanted our bananas on O‘ahu. We had more guts than brains at that time, so we sent several hundred boxes to someone we called Uncle Chow, though we were never sure that was his real name. He took them around Honolulu and sold them off his flatbed truck for ten cents a pound. He never sent us the money, and we wrote it off as marketing and promotion.
His efforts got the attention, though, of Stanley Unten, owner of Hawaiian Banana Company, who was the main banana distributor on O‘ahu. He called and we started shipping to him.
Next we bought a large cargo van. Mechanization was coming fast and furious for us. We bought a roller conveyor to aid in loading the cargo van, which we drove to the docks. We also used the roller conveyor to unload our banana boxes into a Young Brothers refrigerated container.
Then we really hit the big time—we bought a secondhand forklift for $100. The guys called it “Fred Flintstone.” It had hard rubber tires and would go “clunk” every time the part missing from the wheel hit the concrete. But it could move pallets of bananas, meaning each one didn’t have to be carried by hand. All the guys appreciated it very much.
People occasionally ask me how we came to grow bananas.
After I graduated from UH Manoa in 1973 with a degree in accounting, Dad asked if I would run the family poultry farm. I agreed and moved back to Hilo.
After running the chicken farm for several months, I was asked to manage the Hilo Egg Producers Cooperative, located on Kalanikoa Street in the building just Hilo Bay side of Hilo Lunch Shop. The co-op supplied Hilo area supermarkets with fresh eggs.
In the course of that job, I noticed that supermarkets were importing Chiquita bananas. We had been thinking about what crop to grow at the farm, where we had 25 acres of family land and lots of chicken manure, and bananas seemed to have potential.
All I had was a credit card with a $300 limit and a Toyota Land Cruiser, so when I delivered eggs to the supermarkets I started collecting their used banana boxes. I stashed them in the open area beneath my parents’ house.
To get banana planting material, I traded chicken manure with local farmers. I got some from a Mr. Kudo on Haihai Street and some from Eric Mydell, Mr. Ah Heen and Uncle Sonny Kamahele, down the beach road at Maku‘u.
We had no money to clear the land so we marked banana rows by running down the California grass with my Land Cruiser. We are talking tall California grass, higher than the Land Cruiser and with those tiny hairs that make you itchy. We used sickles to clear the grass and an 'o'o and post hole digger to plant the banana pulapula (seedling). Mom and Dad, my three brothers and I planted all the bananas.
Having majored in accounting, I was interested in acquiring a large market share, so we needed to plant as fast as we could. Using sickles and an 'o'o, “moving quickly” meant planting 50 plants a week. Now, with automatic planters, it takes us only six seconds to plant one plant.
Later on, to make it easier on ourselves and to speed up the process, we poisoned the grass first instead of using a sickle. But at the beginning, we had more muscle than money so we used the sickle until we had our first harvest a year later.
I cannot believe how much we didn’t know back then. It’s kind of humorous to look back at where we came from.
We were so new to banana growing that we thought the larger the plant we put in the ground, the quicker and larger the bunch we would harvest. So we took the biggest plants we could find. But now we know that a banana plant needs maximum undisturbed time to develop a large bunch, so that wasn’t a good strategy.
Some of the plants we selected back then even had their bunch halfway up the tree already. We know now that those bunches would not be saleable. But we didn’t know any better then.
At the time we were very self-satisfied, having loaded a trailer to the top with banana keiki that looked like ‘ohi‘a logs. Nowadays, the same number of small, tissue-cultured banana plants could be carried under one arm and they would make larger bunches than the giant keiki we chose back then.
We started with two acres of bananas, which was maybe 1,500 plants. After planting them, we just let them grow. We would work for two or three hours and then my brothers’ friends would come by and we would talk story and hit the punching bag or lift weights for another few hours. Then, pau work.
After a year went by, we started to harvest and pack the bananas in boxes we had stored under the house.
But customers prefer ripe bananas. So we would lay all the hands of bananas on chicken wire in one of the empty chicken houses, and pick out the riper ones to put in the boxes.
This was really unwieldy. I had heard that on the mainland people were ripening bananas with some kind of gas. But I had no idea what it was, so I inquired at Gaspro if they knew of a product that ripens bananas. The lady told me, "You mean banana gas?" I said, "Yes, banana gas." And I took the cylinder with me.
We made a room out of plywood in which to contain the gas and treat the bananas. And amazingly, the bananas ripened uniformly in just a few days. Our first customer was Food Fair Supermarket. We took a photo with the boss there, Mr. Eji Kaneshiro, of the first box we delivered. This was a big deal, as I did not even get to talk to him when I was in charge of marketing fresh eggs.
For some reason, the individual bananas would occasionally fall off the hand. I was called down to Food Fair on many occasions, where I would always act surprised and promise I would fix it. It went on like that for too long and I was having to talk to Mr. Kaneshiro way too often.
Then I learned that banana companies on the mainland used refrigeration to control ripening. We didn’t have money, so we bought a small air conditioner. It worked and it was amazing. We were delivering maybe ten boxes a week to Food Fair Supermarket and they were perfect. We were in the big time with cutting-edge technology.
One day, when we hit peak production of 25 boxes or so, I opened up the door to the air-conditioned enclosure and smelled the unmistakable odor of overripe bananas. What could have happened?
The air conditioning unit had ice all over it. That’s when I found out that ripening bananas give off a lot of heat, and we had overtaxed the small air conditioning unit. It was a disaster—we lost all 25 boxes.
I applied for a loan to build a warehouse and we made three ripening rooms with real refrigeration. From then on, we were really in the banana business.