Meet Richard Ha: Big Isle Farmer That's Changing The World...

...One Tomato at a Time

Meet Richard Ha: Big Isle Farmer That's Changing The World...

In our never-ending quest to provide you, dear reader, with the latest and greatest in sustainable culinary happenings (among other things), we came across a rather unique individual whom we felt compelled to share with you. The only thing better than a farmer who is looking 5 years in to the future in order to keep putting the best Hawaiian-grown produce on your polished plate, is one who is a philanthropist to boot. Meet Richard Ha. 

Ha is a 64-year-old, third generation farmer on Hawaii Island, just outside of Hilo. He runs a 600-acre farm called Hamakua Springs, which makes damn fine use of the three streams that run through his ahupua’a… but we’ll get to that later. Ha recently started a program that organizes charitable contributions to send students at Hilo’s Keaukaha Elementary School on field trips to local farms, Imiloa Astronomy Center, and so on. Currently, the predominantly Hawaiian school has so little money, they send their kids on walking trips around the neighborhood. 

Read on to learn why Ha’s cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and bananas have Alan Wong scratching his head—and begging for more. 

B on Hawaii:  So a few weeks ago I was sitting with Alan Wong, perhaps Hawaii’s most well-known and acclaimed chef, discussing sustainability for an upcoming feature story in a national magazine. And he told me that if I was impressed at his work, then “it was nothing compared to what Richard Ha is doing.” That’s got to be humbling!

Richard Ha, Hamakua Farms:  It’s stifling. Listen: One day I’m picking tomatoes, and Alan Wong shows up on my farm. I’m just trying to be sustainable, growing our hydroponic scene, farming, you know? And when he said he wanted to buy some of my stuff, I was thrilled. 

So then he tells me to come sit in on one of his classes with his chefs. And in it, he dissected each type of lettuce I sold him, leaf by leaf, explaining what goes where and which part is used in which dishes. I had no idea anyone would do that. After that, things were never the same. He started putting our name on his menu—and we were now responsible for the thing. Instead of waving goodbye to it from the loading dock, we were now responsible for it on the plate at Alan Wong’s! it upped our game, so to speak. 

B on Hawaii:  And how long ago was that? 

Richard Ha:  Two years ago. And if you want to know why we’ve become such good friends since then, it’s because we both think 5 years ahead of ourselves. He and I both steer our ships in that direction. 

B on Hawaii:  Alan told me that he is a firm believer in using what you have available to you. I know he is bringing in University of Hawaii students to assess his energy usage; I have a feeling you think that way too. 

Richard Ha:  Oh yeah we do! Listen, we’re anticipating tough times ahead. So naturally we assess what we have. I have three streams running through my ahupua’a [a slice of land that runs from mountain to sea]. We are investing nearly a million dollars in to a hydroelectric plant run by the water in those streams—which will create all the electricity we need to run this farm. And we use a lot of electricity! I hope to make 25 percent more electricity than I need—and then I’ll let my 80 employees plug in their electric cars here, and they won’t have to worry about any fuel. 

B on Hawaii:  Wow. And what do you have going on right now that is efficient? 

Richard Ha:  Right now we make all the biodiesel fuel that runs our delivery vans. It powers us to Kona four times per week, and to Hilo six times per week. We’re looking to expand our farm to start harvesting shrimp. And I’ll use the byproduct and waste from our bananas to feed cattle, pig and other fish, which I want to begin farming as well. 

B on Hawaii:  Sounds like you’re getting close to being totally self-sufficient.

Richard Ha:  We are. As of now, every Thursday I give all my employees enough produce to get them through the week at home. You know, we’ve hit this formula where as oil increases, the populations skyrockets. In the future, if we’re not careful, when oil decreases, so will food production. It’s scary. If we can produce a lot of food using just what we have on the land here, people can continue doing interesting things instead of having to farm to live. That’s my goal. Let the interesting people keep doing their thing. We’ll just feed ‘em. 

B on Hawaii:  Who else do you see practicing this way of sustainability?

Richard Ha:  Peter Merriman is like that. I called him up one New Years Day, I remember, just to thank him for what he was doing to help the small farmers near Waimea [where Merriman’s restaurant is]. He wasn’t helping me any, but I knew he was helping others like me. So I just had to call and thank him. 

The folks at NELHA [Natural Energy Laboratories of Hawaiian Authority] really inspire me. If they can pump sea water from 2000 feet using solar energy, and grow things that aren’t meant to grow here, then I am excited to see what I can do with free electricity. I can try and grow things—like cherries, for example—that aren’t supposed to grow here if I can trick them in to thinking it’s winter. With free electricity, that’s a possibility.  

Over at Hilo Bay Café, they make good use of all the heirloom tomatoes we sell them. And Chef Casey at Café Pesto in Hilo also loves the product. These younger guys are really starting to get it. 

B on Hawaii:  You raise an interesting question: Does this sustainable thing cross the generational threshold? Or is it the old teaching the young, or vice-versa? Do you think the younger chefs and restaurateurs “get it”? Do you fear for the younger generation? 

Richard Ha:  You know, I’m a Vietnam veteran. And when I was there, I was the old guy, at 26 years old. What I learned was first, we never left anyone behind, and second, younger people have no idea what they can accomplish until they absolutely have to do something. It might explain why I’m drawn to young people who get in to trouble, and just start realizing what they could do if they focused. I sometimes get university kids here, and I tell them: With great difficulty comes great opportunity. I don’t fear for the future, no matter how bad things may get. Someone will figure something great out. 

To donate a tax-deductible contribution to Keaukaha Elementary School, download the form from the Hamakua Springs web site (www.HamakuaSprings.com) or call Richard Ha at (808) 981-0756.


"Younger people have no idea what they can accomplish until they absolutely have to do something... With great difficulty comes great opportunity. I don’t fear for the future, no matter how bad things may get. Someone will figure something great out." – Ha