After ditching a regular 9-to-5 job and armed with degrees in biology and plant physiology, Kerry Kakazu started what’s probably the first urban indoor farm in Hawai‘i last year.
And he’s not growing marijuana.
MetroGrow Hawai‘i produces various greens, microgreens and shoots in space-saving, vertically integrated aeroponic and hydroponics operations in a teeny little warehouse space in Kaka‘ako. He’s in charge of everything here, from planting to harvesting to replenishing the nutrient solution supply the grows his greens.
Right now, he supplies local restaurants including Stage Restaurant, Tango Contemporary Cafe and Yohei Sushi. Ed Kenney’s new venture, Mud Hen Water, in Kaimukī is soon to be a regular customer.
And what’s been crazy-popular is the ice plant (above), or glacier lettuce, which taste a bit like the salty sea asparagus but way cooler.
So we decided to chat with Kakazu and find out what motivated him to start this business and what he think about the future of agriculture in Hawai‘i:
1. How did you get the idea of farming indoors?
I had been interested in hydroponic growing for awhile and read about how enclosed aeroponic farms were being developed in Singapore because of the lack of land and warm climate. I saw the similarities to the situation in Hawai‘i and thought that growing indoors would be a unique niche for the growing different plants from the outdoor farms. The idea of being able to control all the different variables that contribute to plant growth appealed to my plant science background. However, until recently, most of the lighting systems were tremendous energy users so I didn’t think an indoor farm could be economical unless you were growing something like marijuana. A few years ago, LED lighting products for horticulture started to come out and they used a fraction of the electricity. That development made me think that an indoor farm could be feasible.
2. What are you currently growing and what are some interesting crops you plan to go soon? (Or maybe dream about growing.)
I am growing butter lettuce, Chinese cabages, microgreens, pea and corn shoots and ice plant. I’m researching some other cool weather greens like mache and Miner’s lettuce. I’d also like to develop aeroponic growing of strawberries and wasabi.
3. What are your plans for the Kaka‘ako regentrification? Are you staying where you are?
I wasn’t sure how critical being in Kaka‘ako would be when I started out, but now that I’m here, I like the fit. I got into my space partly because Kamehameha Schools saw this venture as compatible with their master plan for Kaka‘ako. Chefs seem interested that I’m nearby, so I think that is a definite marketing advantage. I’ve biked to Vino and Hiroshi to deliver product. Today, Ed Kenney called, stopped by and picked up some pea shoots and scallion microgreens. Later, I walked over to Bevy to bring them samples. I think this community is very receptive to outside the box businesses. However, because of the continuing development, I’m on a month-to-month lease, so the future isn’t certain. I’ve thought about trying to partner with one of the new developments to be an onsite farm/vegetable store. My big dream is a combination indoor farm, organic waste recycling center (anaerobic digestion) and community garden facility that would be a great sustainability demonstration/education project. I’d like to talk to HCDA (Hawai‘i Community Development Authority) about that one.
4. How has this new career changed your life?
It’s been fun to work for myself, definitely fulfilling to be producing a tangible product. Getting hands on with so many different aspects of a business seems to fit my personality, I like to try new things and learn new skills. It’s hard work, yet not stressful. A lot of dichotomies, but I’m guessing that’s how a lot of entrepreneurs feel. It’s tough not to be making money yet, but luckily I have support from family who want to see this succeed.
5. What’s your view on the future of farming in Hawai‘i?
When I started this, I was under the impression that farm land was scarce on O‘ahu. Because of the loss of sugar and pineapple, It does seem that there is still a lot of ag land that is under-utilized because of lack of infrastructure. I believe the governor supports diversified ag and projects like Whitmore Village may help expand the use of the existing ag lands and for more local food production. However, I believe that there will be a need for urban, indoor farming to supplement the traditional growing. If renewable energy sources can be utilized it can be a practical adjunct to more traditional farming. It will also conserve water, reduce pesticide usage, pollute less, and prevent soil degradation. It can only help better Hawai‘i’s food production self-sufficiency. The biggest hurdle (for all kinds of farming) will be price competition. Large Mainland and foreign farms can often still sell for less than local producers because of their economies of scale and efficient distribution chains. It will take education and awareness of the higher quality of the local produce (that’s where the chefs really help) to show that the local product is still a good value at a higher price.
Visit this indoor farm today from 2:30 to 5 p.m. in Kaka‘ako. For more information about MetroGrow Hawai‘i, call (808) 255-3002 or follow @metrogrowhawaii on Instragram.