Q: Why plant African Oil Palm (AOP) in Hawaii?
A: Several reasons:
1) Profit- some landowners may realize a significant yearly income from selling AOP fruit bunches and chopped leaf production as a member on an island-wide AOP Cooperative with our own oil pressing mill (the mill is already on-island).
2) Food security -as with WWII Victory Gardens and Russia's dacha gardens, food produced from AOP planted around the house --even on small town lots and suburban lots such as those in HPP-- can significantly improve household food security and enrich the household diet. Oil produced by AOP can be used for cooking and enhancing animal feeds. Unlike some tropical harvests, which all come dead ripe at the same brief moment and then "go bad" to spoil within days of ripening, oil from AOP can be obtained throughout many different times of the year and has a long stable shelf life when properly processed and maintained; with an oil refining system this product could be sold at approximately $20-$30/gallon as cooking oil. A palm will--under the right conditions--produce two to three gallons of oil per tree by year 2 of growth. In year 3 each tree can produce as much as four gallons. In year 4 each tree can produce as much as five gallons. AOP trees mature at year 8, producing around eight to nine gallons/tree/year thereafter until onset of senescence around 22 to 25 years of age, when production begins to significantly decline. AOP trees are generally replaced at 25 to 30 years of age, from a practical highest sustained oil production standpoint. AOP trees can live to approximately a maximum age of 75 years old. All of these numbers will vary from one site to another.
3) Fuel security -AOP oil can be burned directly in a lamp and/or converted into biodiesel; biomass from AOP production can also contribute to ethanol production. Without an accurate crystal ball to predict what the future holds regarding petroleum products it is hard to guess whether AOP-based fuels would be economically competitive, yet if for whatever reason imported fossil fuel diesel deliveries were to become interrupted then Hawaii would doubtless be glad it had an on-island alternative available to which to turn (more info on this aspect is available via a paper at the website).
4) Diverse derivative products –AOP’s edible oil can used as feedstock for many modern food products as well as diverse non-food products from soaps to emollients, creams & moisturizers to lubricants, and more.
5) Enhance land values and protect structures -planting AOP can suppress harmful trash tree growth and help protect both structures and fragile fruit & nut trees in a hurricane. Albizia, in particular, damage the value of your investment and pose a clear & present danger from falling branches and toppling trees. Flexible and resilient AOP, by contrast, can hold the ground against brittle weed species, bend in storms, stay rooted even during the scouring of a hurricane, and so help protect everything around them by being a windbreak and blocking flying debris.
6) Promote diversity in your plantings, cut down on time & labor spent weeding as well as reducing herbicide use, and conserve soil -cultivars such as cacao, coffee, cloves and so on have been demonstrated to thrive when interplanted with AOP. Interplantings tend to do a much better job of protecting and building soil than do monocroppings and the disastrous mess resulting when albizia become dominant and are then toppled over. As AOP grow and cast more shade it becomes easier to control the area around them, thus reducing the time, labor, and herbicides spent on fighting noxious weeds and invasive trash trees.
Q: Where do AOP thrive in Hawaii, what are their main characteristics, and how are they best planted here?
A: The type of AOP being specifically brought in for this project have already been successfully tested in a pilot project.
This is a dwarf variety from Costa Rica; it grows to 30' high and is planted on 20' centers if equidistant one from another (so, to put it another way, expect about 10' radius of shade around the trunk of each mature AOP). The maximum planting density is about 100 trees per acre, allowing for mortalities, though this number would be lower if interplanting with other cultivars. The tree has a single trunk rising to an attractive umbrella of broad leaves; it takes the trees up to 8-10 years to reach maturity but they start producing by 3-4 years of age. Each tree produces 4 to 18 colorful bunches of fruit, annually; the clusters of nuts are structurally somewhat similar to kukui in having an outer pulp and inner hull over the nutmeat. Each fruit cluster weighs about 15 pounds. The fruit clusters are various hues of yellow and reddish-orange when ripe. Since AOP send down a strongly anchoring taproot they thrive best in a spot which has been ripped (versus on unripped lava sheets) or in ground which is naturally porous. This variety of AOP should grow well below 3,000 feet of elevation in Hawaii as long as there is adequate rain (85" or more per year), or irrigation, and lots of sun. AOP enjoy full sun but will also thrive in semi-shaded spots, though growing more slowly. They are fairly salt tolerant and have been successfully grown in soils located relatively close to the ocean.
Q: How are they best cultivated and maintained?
A: Prep site by ripping lava or plant in a porous spot; prevent weed growth &/or trim weeds in an area 3 feet around each tree. Twice per year apply 4-6-4 fertilizer and dolomite. These AOP have been demonstrated to be very resistant to existing Big Island insect pests; feral pigs leave them alone after they have attained 2 years growth in situ. The informational paper "Fertilizer Systems for Oil Palm" (available at the website) gets into quantification of different fertilizer estimates but is based on SE Asian planting experiences and ends by saying heuristic methods (basically, guessing) may work just as well. So, the advice probably is a good starting point but individual sites in Hawaii will vary depending on many factors. Experience will teach us what works best in certain specific conditions here. Note: the invasive rhinoceros beetle, a notorious pest of coconut palms and which has been detected on Oahu, can also become a major pest of AOP; it is under control on Oahu and attempts to eradicate it there continue. This is yet one more good reason to prevent the rhinoceros beetle from establishing itself in Hawaii (more info is available via a paper at the website).
Q: What exactly are these seedlings, when will they be available, how much do they cost, and how do I reserve some for myself?
A: Several varieties of AOP were tested in Bill Steiner's Hawaii Island pilot project, which used 10,000 seeds. Based on the positive results of that initial effort and the number of AOP seedling requests being received from Hawaii Island landowners such as you, a new seed order is being prepared. So far, somewhat over 220,000 seedlings have been requested with proven land dedicated for planting them. Batches of 80,000 seeds will be treated and certified for import from Costa Rica. Those will arrive soon and be grown for their first two years under carefully maintained greenhouse conditions here on the Big Island, as greenhouse capacity is developed and expanded to accommodate those batches. People who have reserved seedlings will have first dibs on claiming the requested number when these come available for planting. We do not yet know if there will be a cost for the seedlings (grants have been requested to subsidize expenses but we do not know if they will be funded). The seedlings could be free, or could cost somewhere between $11 to $22 each, at an estimate; we will not know until the time comes. Even at a cost around $22 per tree there should be a lifetime return of at least 6x that amount, at minimum (probably much higher), to Cooperative members, this lowball number being without assigning a value to home food & fuel security, just a ballpark figure for selling AOP products to the Coop. Signing up now does not obligate you to buy the requested number of seedlings, but does save you the option having first opportunity before they are made available to the general public. If the seedlings are provided to you free, then you will be asked to sign an agreement that you really are planting them and not selling them (as some unethical individuals in past have done) -break that agreement and expect to be billed, have difficulties with the Coop, and get some major stink-eye. To reserve seedlings, please copy and paste the requested information above in an email to Bill Steiner. Please be realistic in the number of seedlings you reserve; only reserve the number you genuinely intend to plant!
Q: Am I on my own with this effort or will there be any support available?
A: The idea is to make all of this as easy, productive, and profitable as possible for everyone in Hawaii who is interested in devoting space in their yard or acreage from their agricultural holdings toward AOP. Toward that, a Cooperative is being formed via which growers can draw upon the services of experts and teams devoted to planning, site prepping, planting, maintaining, trouble-shooting, and harvesting AOP for processing at the mill as well as regards subsequent marketing and distribution. Whether you have a few 20' diameter spots available in your yard right in the middle of town or hundreds of remote rural acres, support is available. Come to the meeting in June to learn more. Bill Steiner is working on getting the Dept. of Energy, Dept of Ag (USDA), and Economic Administration to aid people in buying the trees and perhaps even with preparing the land to plant them.
Q: What about an ecological objection to growing AOP? I have seen awful photos of orangutans suffering on vast AOP plantations and heard of terrible deforestation happening in order to plant AOP.
A: There is a legitimate argument against planting AOP in natural forested areas, such as the Amazon and on Sumatra & Borneo, but that is a place-based problem and not one we face at most sites here in Hawaii. Certainly, AOP should never be planted in a site where it disturbs and precludes existing pristine native forest and fauna. Here in Hawaii, everywhere that noxious weeds and fast-growing invasive trash tree species are taking over already cleared ex-sugar and ex-pineapple lands, and where Rapid Ohia Death is swiftly opening large acreages of land--both private and public--to invasion by yet more albizia, planting AOP can be constructive -especially when interplanted with other cultivars, endangered flora, and Hawaiian indigenous species. Likewise, in town and on small suburban lots where old trees are no longer producing and need to be replaced with something productive that will not topple in a storm, planting AOP instead of non-productive "landscaping" is a good, community-minded, option. To ignore the contribution AOP can make to Hawaii because of misuse elsewhere is a huge mistake. Hawaii will probably never be able to grow so much palm oil, so cheaply, as to undercut world markets (as happened to Hawaii's mac nuts when vast tracts went into mac nut production in Brazil, Australia, and elsewhere), but at least the local market for buying palm oil can be filled with a product which is green, ethical, providing local employment, and is certified to not be contributing to deforestation and extinctions here or elsewhere. In fact, if you opt to join the Hawaii AOP Coop then as a member you may want to advocate for a portion of Coop profits being devoted to habitat preservation, reforestation, and fighting the misuse of AOP.
Q: Is oil from fruit production the only product from AOP?
A: No, there is also byproduct in the leaf frond trimmings, chipped trunks of old nonproductive trees, and the meal left over after crushing and extracting the oil. These can be ground and used in animal feed with a 3-5% oil (fat) content and 12% supplemented protein content. Malaysia and Indonesia use this nutritious byproduct to feed dairy cattle and to fatten pigs and beef for slaughter. With the new feed mill being built at the UHH farm, we anticipate taking all cuttings and meal to them for formulation into animal feed -with a second paycheck coming back to the Cooperative! Registered members of the Cooperative would share in the income from this. Also, another way to consider the benefits of AOP are in savings of time, labor, & reduction of herbicides with weed control (once AOP are established they cast shade), in providing a more diverse habitat for birds in interplantings than in monocropped tree stands or in fields of canegrass, as well as the benefits of AOP in windbreaks and with regard to soil conservation.