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From Issue #41 April 24, 2014

Tanks for Everything

The future of sustenance farming and beyond may lie in aquaponics.

By Lee van der Voo Twitter icon 

Ikaika Rogerson lives in a two-story house. On three sides, the grass is slowly disappearing from his yard. In its place are trays and tanks, bubbling, purring, growing the food that feeds his household of five. Mint and turmeric. Radishes and cabbages. Watercress. Lettuce. Tomatoes. His main attraction, though, is fish. Odd as it is, Rogerson has about 200 tilapia growing in his backyard.

“The kids see the fish; they are pets, so to speak. Everybody wants to feed the fish and check them out,” he says.

It sounds like the stuff of sci-fi movies: people raising fish and vegetables in backyard tanks. But it’s a reality in Waimanalo, a homestead community in Hawai‘i, where nearly 80 such systems are bubbling away on local properties.1

By itself, aquaponics isn’t new here. Think of it as a mash-up of hydroponics (growing plants that derive mineral nutrients from water rather than soil) and aquaculture. It’s a way of farming both fish and crops in interconnected systems, and it’s well suited to the Pacific Islands. Temperatures never drop below freezing, and the too-salty soil makes land-based agriculture dicey, a problem that’s now edging inland thanks to global warming and rising seas. Aquaponic growing is also cheap: fish act like a kind of filter, fattening up on feed and then dumping the nutrient-filled waste in the water to fertilize the plants.

What’s happening in Waimanalo, however, is not at all ordinary. In this community of four square miles across Oahu from Honolulu, a company called Ho‘oulu Pacific has been building the foundation for a community-wide food collaborative, one tank at a time. (Ho‘oulu means to grow or inspire.) It’s taking aquaponics to an untested level, from a kind of quirky hobby farming to a crowd-sourced food revolution.

Tapping a handful of government and nonprofit partners, and with the help of grants at first, the company has populated dozens of properties with tanks and grow trays and trained residents to grow their own food. The mission started with 70 small systems, a sort of beta-test version, and is now ramping up with a second-generation system that is three times larger. This new setup is the core of the operation slowly taking over Rogerson’s yard.

Tilled well, the newer system can produce enough fish and vegetables to meet USDA standards for a family of four every year, plus leftovers. Ho‘oulu Pacific wants to market that surplus to grocers, caterers, and restaurants for cash, and sell more tanks too. The goal is a healthy and sustainable population and a successful business.

“I just want to give people like me, indigenous people throughout the Pacific and the world, the opportunity to be free and to know what freedom is,” says Ilima Ho-Lastimosa. She’s a co-founder of Ho‘oulu Pacific and a certified master gardener and aquaponics guru. Through her experiences living in Waimanalo, she’s come to believe that the biggest freedom in life is the ability to feed yourself and your family with food you grow. “The feeling is like no other. It’s empowering,” she says.

Tumeric grows in Rogerson’s newer system.

Better living through aquaponics

To her and Ho‘oulu Pacific’s four other co-founders, Waimanalo is a place in need of liberating. More than 17 percent of people live below the poverty line, according to recent Census Data, somewhat above the overall average across America. It’s also a place that showcases the unique difficulties of living in Hawai‘i as opposed to vacationing there. Employment is scarce, the cost of living is high, and most food comes via ship or plane, carrying a daunting price tag.

Rogerson points to the price of watercress, which has risen 100 percent in the last three years, as evidence of the forces that derail a healthy diet in Waimanalo. Aquaponics now buffer his grocery bill and also give him steady access to organics. Otherwise, he says, “organic produce is not cheap, and when bills are tight you can’t spring for the extra $3 for the organic kale.”

The alternatives are also not pretty. Much of Hawai‘i’s local produce comes from farmers who coax food out of the briny soil with a frightful chemical intensity. And ocean fishing isn’t as easy-access as the travel brochures imply. Thanks to heavy commercial fishing, fish are farther away from the shore than they used to be, so catching them requires a boat and fuel plus the cash and time to burn.

These factors have combined with modern tastes for things like Fritos and Pepsi to promote island dependence on cheap processed foods. Small wonder the Pacific Islands have some of the highest obesity and diabetes rates in the world. More than 75 percent of American Samoans are obese, for example. And one study of Nauru found that 44 percent of residents older than 20 have diabetes.

Ho‘oulu Pacific and its founders aren’t the first to spy the problem, or eyeball aquaponics as a solution. The first descriptions of aquaponic systems surfaced 39 years ago, and systems have been commercially workable for the last 19. They weren’t adapted for the DIY crowd until recently, however, when Harry Ako, a gregarious professor from the University of Hawai‘i, drafted a how-to aquaponics manual that has steadily made the island rounds. (It’s available for download.)

In nine pages, he explains how to convert two-by-fours, screws, plastic, and a few boards of plywood into grow trays. And how a cinder block stand with net pots, polystyrene sheets, and a pump can get you the rest of the way to a backyard mini-farm. He advises feed techniques too, and guppies to control the inevitable mosquitoes.

Examining data at a water-quality workshop

“You can grow whatever,” Ako says. Lettuce and cucumber, mustard cabbage, white cabbage. The magic equation is this: 50 gallons of water to five pounds of fish, 40 grams of feed, and 50 plants. He says the tomatoes are best when you cut the fish feed in half — they like a little starvation. And he advises against mint, because its roots can tangle with the pumps.

Though more tinkering is needed before anybody truly knows the nutrient flow of a system, and what grows best with what, “You can’t touch the vegetables. They are just so much better than anything you can buy in a supermarket,” Ako says.

He is focused on liberating islanders from the supermarket first, particularly the supermarkets in American Samoa, where drooping vegetables flown from New Zealand are the norm. That leaves protégé David Walfish, also a co-founder of Ho‘oulu Pacific, to push the next aquaponic frontier through the company: cooperative farming. If it succeeds, Ho‘oulu Pacific will eventually use whole communities like Waimanalo to cultivate aggregated, community-wide crop production. Their job will be to provide plants and baby fish to growers, and to steer growers toward crops that fetch higher prices while helping facilitate their sale.

Walfish is quick to say the company isn’t rooted in soilless farming. Its goal is rather for lasting holistic change. But success hinges on the ability of growers to someday repay the cost of the tanks while paying Ho‘oulu Pacific a percentage of surplus crops sold.

For now, “Ilima and I are grossly underpaid, and Keith [Sakuda, a co-founder] does this pro bono. We’re working very hard and a lot of it is from the heart. But we’re very hopeful that we can be profitable,” Walfish says.

They recognize, however, the potential for financial aims to be checked by cultural bent in places like Waimanalo.

But the opposite exists, too: enthusiastic boosters like Rogerson.

It’s what’s for dinner

When asked to join the handful of growers testing Ho‘oulu Pacific’s tanks, the 37-year-old pioneer expanded his enterprise from a hobby into a lifestyle change. His property now includes the original system, plus the new one: three four-by-eight hydroponic trays connected to an eight-foot-diameter tank. With 200 tilapia and enough produce to feed a small army troop, he’s less an entrepreneur than a local benefactor at times, feeding his housemates, neighbors, and family and friends around Waimanalo.

Admittedly, Rogerson says, this is less about charity than pure dining fatigue. “There have been times I have so much produce I am tired of eating the same produce. So most of my neighbors on either side luck out,” he says.

He’s learning to stagger the harvest and shake up what’s in the trays. By his own modest description — he says he’s “intrigued” by aquaponics — the pursuit has transformed him. He’s now taking classes in permaculture and farming at Hawai‘i University. His home has also become kind of a laboratory for the rest of Waimanalo: people ferry seeds as though his yard were some kind of working lab.

While it sounds like a huge job, maintenance is fairly low. There is no weeding required, for starters. Rogerson has a full-time job as a rigger on a crane crew, takes night courses, works in the university’s agricultural research station, surfs and paddles occasionally, and still has a little time left over to walk the two Rottweilers that share the yard. He says he feeds his fish a few handfuls of feed a day — whatever they will eat; he doesn’t want the extra food mucking up the water. And the system uses only rainfall and a small amount of electricity.

“Other than that there’s just double-checking up on the plants, seeing what the health of the plants is, and whether or not it needs any other nutrients besides what the fish are giving it, which usually isn’t much. That’s about it. Every once in a while you’ll find some little sprout that don’t belong here from the wind or whatever,” he says. All told, he says it takes him few minutes a day to grow a huge volume of food.

This is exactly what the founders of Ho‘oulu Pacific have set their sights on. “We see this as a solution, not just for Hawai‘i,” Walfish says. And not just for health problems either. News broke in early March that Kiribati, an island 1,200 miles south of Hawai‘i, will be under water by the turn of the century. Walfish says that if these island nations can’t find a way to make it, even with homes on stilts, they’ll become the world’s first climate refugees. “We just strongly believe in this soilless farming, be it hydroponic systems or aquaponic systems, together with our business model — this aggregation and coordinated, distributed agriculture — is the way to go.” He says the model also has potential in other parts of the world, such as remote parts of Africa, Europe, South America, and the Central US.

Social impact investors love the idea of solving a food and hunger problem and making money at the same time. Ho‘oulu Pacific has been a titan on the awards circuit, winning prizes from Harvard Business School, the Pitch for Change competition, and the Dell Social Innovation Challenge. Last November, the company won a $10,000 prize at Fish 2.0, a business competition that funnels philanthropic and private dollars from the socially conscious to seafood. Walfish says they came home with a Rolodex full of contacts and continue to talk with investors.

For now, though, the company is still taking baby steps. They provide starting plants and fish, and make regular visits to tanks on Waimanalo to help growers expand their harvests. And they are quickly building connections to buyers that might someday make Waimanalo the first distributed farm in the world.

Beta growers are building their own connections as well, including on the Facebook group Ho‘oulu ‘Ai Aquaponics Waimanalo, where they trade secrets about tackling slow leaks, discouraging pests, and how to tell your male fish from female. There are tips on taming pH and nitrates too. And photos: tanks, trays, and successful harvests; vining squash and eggplant; medicinal plants and herbs.

There’s a picture of a Sunday night dinner at Rogerson’s, too. A few clouds in the sky, the grass trim and the kids dressed in island print. Two fish are on the table, a spoon and a small bag beside them. Next to the table is a smiling boy, shirtless in a shell necklace, hair brushed across his forehead. In his hands, raised for the camera: fresh, clean tilapia.

Fish tank and water-testing photos courtesy of Ho‘oulu Pacific. Tumeric and Sunday dinner photos courtesy of Ikaika Rogerson.


  1. Homesteads were established by a federal act in 1921 to reserve land for native Hawai‘ians, and allow the perpetuation of local culture and agriculture. 

Lee van der Voo writes about food, sustainability, crime, and the environment. A former Alicia Patterson fellow, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, and TheAtlantic.com. It has been supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Fund for Environmental Journalism. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats. We ceased publication of new work on December 18, 2014.
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