The Big Island, the sleeping giant, is awakening to previously unimagined opportunities. Like the rest of the state, we have experienced inflated real estate prices to the point of near economic collapse. Now that the final failure of the sugar industry is upon us, many new opportunities become apparent.
In agriculture, we could provide for virtually all our fuel needs locally if we were to convert our sugar production to alcohol production.
Energy Resources, a company founded to address the energy and resource-related needs of the Big Island, in conjunction with Tenn/Arc, a joint venture between Tenneco and Arkenol, in late September was in negotiation to acquire the sugar lands at Ka'u and begin production of ethanol for transportation and power fuel.
The cultural practice of producing ethanol involves the propagation of cane-like grasses in place of sugar cane. The ethanol will be made from cellulose rather than sugar and the farming methods will be simplified, with projected yields of 2,500 gallons per acre per year. Furthermore, the grass-growing techniques will be applied to feed production for the dairy and beef industry.
Presently, cattle ranches export weaned calves to feed lots in North America and we import our beef from the mainland. We could feed cattle here on grass grown on former sugar lands and produce a low-fat beef for the ground beef market (school lunches, military bases, fast-food chains and local gourmet hamburgers for our visitors) that's better tasting, better for you and in demand. This is another Energy Resources project and goes hand in hand with growing grass for ethanol.
Although the intent is to begin operations in Ka'u, long-range plans could include other former sugar lands throughout the state. It should be understood, however, that this project will not prevent diversified farming from gaining a stronger foothold. On the contrary, the establishment of this "new agriculture" will preserve and enhance the farming infrastructure and enable support industries to continue and prosper. In fact, a new atmosphere of working together is beginning to take hold, demonstrated by the willingness of Chevron to accept a role in this venture and by Hawaii Electric Light Co.'s supportive stance.
Energy Resources is also involved in a project to convert municipal waste (garbage, trash and sewer sludge) to a high-grade compost for use in farming. Research indicates that the addition of organic material to the a'a lava and cinder that papaya is now grown in enables it to withstand disease. The ring spot virus may therefore cease to be a problem in papaya. Furthermore, irrigation on golf courses could be cut by as much as one-half if compost were added to the cinder soil currently used in their construction. The ultimate waste is that today we bury all the materials needed for these results in a landfill, and pay dearly to do it.
These are just a few of the new opportunities, but they are the basis for a new beginning. They are in fact the basis of island sovereignty - not sovereignty in popular terms, but sovereignty defined as self-sufficiency.
Greenwell, a fourth-generation Kona farmer, is also a landscape contractor and owner of Hawaiian Gardens in Kona.