Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of three columns on energy and food security by Richard Ha. Read Part 2, Expensive Electricity Threatens Hawaii’s Food Security , and Part 3, What Works, Works .

I am Richard Ha, chairman of the board of Ku‘oko‘a. Ku‘oko‘a is trying to align the needs of Hawai‘i’s people with the needs of the electrical utility.

I want to start by telling you who I am and what my values are. My mom is Okinawan, Higa from Moloka‘i, and my Pop was half Korean and half Hawaiian. His mother was Leihulu Kamahele. Our family land was down the beach at Maku‘u in Puna. We were very poor but didn’t know it.

When we were small kids, Pop would tell stories at the dinner table about impossible situations and impossible odds. Then he would poke the air emphatically and pound the table. “Not, no can. CAN!” He would say, “Get thousand reasons why no can. I only looking for the one reason why can.” And he told us, “Find three answers to every problem and then find one more just in case.”

I was a kolohe kid growing up. I went to UH Manoa, where I flunked out. Too many places to go, people to see and beers to drink. I was drafted, and applied to go to Officers Candidate School, and then I volunteered to go to Vietnam. I ended up walking in the jungle with a hundred other soldiers. There was no one close enough to help us if we got into trouble. The unwritten rule was that we all come back or no one comes back. I liked that idea and have kept that attitude ever since.

I wanted to go into business, so I majored in accounting in order to keep score. Pop asked if I would come back and help run the family chicken farm. I came back and saw an opportunity to grow bananas, but I had no money.

“Not, no can, CAN!” – so we traded chicken manure for banana keiki. By questioning everything, looking into the future and forcing change we have survived in farming for more than 30 years. Now three generations of our family and 60 workers work together to farm 600 fee simple acres of bananas and hydroponic vegetables at Pepe‘ekeo on the Big Island.

Six years ago, we noticed supply costs steadily rising, and found it was due to oil. So in 2007 I attended the Association for the Study of Peak Oil conference (ASPO) in Houston. I went to learn about oil so I could reposition our business to be competitive. I went to two subsequent ASPO conferences, as well, and watched this subject evolve and have learned even more. I’m the only person from Hawai‘i to attend three of these conferences.

There I learned that for the past 30 years, the world had been using twice as much oil as it had been finding. And in spite of rising oil prices, world oil supplies have not increased since 2005. There is a strong correlation of oil price with GDP. The last seven recessions have been closely related to oil price spikes.

The folks at ASPO have no other agenda than to educate people and I am impressed by their research. At one session they put up a graph from the Air Transport Association, which projected continuous growth into the future. Everyone in the room knew that that graph was wrong. Shortly after that, the airline industry lost lots of money and some airlines failed.

They talked about how technology is not increasing fast enough to maintain economic growth. Also, that we need energy to manufacture things. And that debt and capital are not energy.

When I got back home, I started to reposition our farm. We initiated legislation for a special Farm Loan program, which enables farmers to borrow money for renewable energy projects, and we looked into generating our own electricity from the river. 

It was clear that Hawai‘i needs to prepare for a future of volatile and rising oil prices.

For 30 years, the world has been using more oil than it has found.

The deeper one drills for oil, the costlier it is.

The costlier it is, the more chance there is of world conflict.

To keep their people happy, exporting countries will use more and more oil at home.

Hawaii is more dependent on oil than any other state in the union.

The problem is not running out of oil. The problem is volatile and rising oil prices, its effect, and how soon it will start to impact Hawai‘i’s economy. 

Our 30 years of experience in adapting to change, forcing change and surviving in agriculture have made us come to like change. We are very familiar with change. Change is comfortable. Change allows us to survive. 

We are very lucky that we here in Hawai‘i can change and become energy and food secure. 

It is not the strongest who survive, but it’s the ones who adapt. It is becoming more and more clear that trying to be safe by doing nothing is no longer safe. 

Not ‘No can.’ ‘CAN!’

Coming tomorrow, Part 2 of the three-part series, “Energy and Food Security.” 


About the author: Richard Ha owns Hamakua Springs Country Farms, a 600-acre, fee-simple, diversified Big Island farm. He is also chairman of the board of Ku‘oko‘a, which aims to purchase Hawai‘i’s public utility and convert it to geothermal energy. He posts frequently about farming, self-sufficiency in terms of renewable energy, the Islands’ food security and more on his blog.

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