Our weekly series continues, talking story with local farmers, ranchers, and other food producers about their crucial efforts to sustain our communities during the coronavirus pandemic.
A conversation with
Jason Brand, Co-Founder of Kunia Country Farms and Manulele Distillers
By Dani Douglass
Over the past two months, Jason Brand and his business partners have made some swift business decisions to pivot operations at both of the companies they co-founded and manage: Kunia Country Farms, one of the largest aquaponic farms in Hawaii, and Manulele Distillers, home of Ko Hana Rum. His business acumen has poised Brand and his team to withstand the economic challenges arising amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Even during the pandemic, Jason Brand remains committed to local food at affordable prices.
From the onset, Brand implemented a clear-cut process and vision to see both companies through the pandemic. First and foremost, he made sure his staff was safe and that they could continue operating as an essential business. Then, he looked at the books and, with the help of an investor group, put capital into the business and secured federal assistance.
The immediate needs of the community were top of mind when it came to operational pivots. At Kunia Country Farms, they shifted sales away from the suddenly closed restaurants and hotels to grocery stores and food basket programs. The farm also increased its fresh food donations to the Hawaii Foodbank to provide for those in need.
Likewise, the distillery shifted its focus almost immediately and worked with the state to become FDA registered to produce and distribute hand sanitizer in bulk. The distribution started at about 1,000 gallons weekly and now islandwide volume is up to about 10,000 gallons. In the beginning, sanitizer was donated to first-responders and hospitals to make sure those on the frontline were safe.
“The goal was not ‘How do we profit from this?’” Brand said. “The goal was how do we utilize our corporate resources to help our community stay healthy. We think that is our job in an emergency, as a company.”
In addition to community donations of lettuce and hand sanitizer, the companies also donated computers to school children. (On a personal level, Brand’s wife and children have contributed countless hours to large-scale food distributions through household deliveries of food baskets.)
Even when faced with financial uncertainty, Brand felt it was essential to uphold the core foundation and spirit of Kunia Country Farms, to offer an exceptional product to Hawaii’s residents at a fair price. That’s because, in addition to supporting local and reducing food importation into the state, the other half of the equation comes down to the price tag.
“One of our tenants is not only to grow food to reduce food imports to the island but to grow food in a sustainable way and at Mainland pricing. If we reduce food prices for the islands, Hawaii becomes a more affordable place to live,” Brand said. He explained that the farm’s aim is not just getting customers to buy local. It’s for them to want to do so because the food is fresher, without costing any more. “We make the choice easier for the consumer by being local and less expensive than the mainland, as most consumers would expect,” he said.
Now that necessary adaptations are becoming part of the daily routine at both of Brand’s businesses, he said the next step is to think about what the new world will be. On the lettuce farm, that looks like continuing to grow food for the island at a sustainable and affordable price point.
For the distillery, Brand looks forward to the supply chain catching up and sanitizer becoming readily available to the community. At that point, the company can return to making only rum and unveiling the beautification and scaling projects that have been completed while visitors weren’t filling the property.
He also envisions ongoing discussion within the agriculture community about how to reduce food importation and lower the price of local produce through larger scaled farms obtaining supply contracts with state departments, hotels and other large organizations.
Brand said one of the things that has been heart-warming through the crisis is the community response and the way that everyone has pulled together to help one another out.
“When we return to what normal is or becomes, we need to keep the mindset that supporting local and banding together as a community is what gets you through a crisis,” he said. “Everyone has stepped up, and it’s beautiful to watch Hawaii rise.”
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About Kunia Country Farms’ aquaponic system
Kunia Country Farms operates deep water raft (DWR) and flood and drain thin film aquaponic systems. It currently has 60 grow bed troughs built on a 3-acre field. Each trough measures 96 feet long by 8 feet wide, for a total growing area of 768 square feet per trough and 46,080 square feet for the entire system. The term “deep water” can be a bit misleading, there is only 10-12 inches of water depth in each trough. This is sufficient for the root system of plants like lettuce. Each trough can grow from 1,650 to 3,300 plants, depending on optimal spacing for the specific varieties.
The basic system setup is shown this diagram. In essence, this is a giant recirculating fish tank with the filtered water diverted to growing troughs before it returns to the fish. The tilapia provide nutrient-rich water to the plants in the troughs, and the plants act as an additional biological filter to return clean water to the fish. When the system is in balance, both the fish and the plants benefit from this relationship. The only necessary inputs for the system are the fish feed, plant seeds, and occasional iron and calcium.
Learn more at www.kuniacountryfarms.com/aquaponics.
Mahalo to the agriculture producers of Hawaii, who understand that a strong ag economy is a resilient one.
Follow this weekly series highlighting the vital work of the dedicated farmers, ranchers and other growers throughout the islands and their contributions to our state’s self-sufficiency and resiliency.