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Coastview Aquaponics is a backyard farming operation on a half-acre lot started by Chris and Alexis Smith as a hobby three years ago. It was a way for the family to grow additional food to supplement their grocery purchases with fresh, organic food.
They were soon growing more than they could eat and began giving some away to friends and neighbors. "After a while people started offering us payment to help offset the expenses of growing the food" says Chris, "and this money was used to expand the system. Before we realized it, the hobby grew into a business as a result of demand from our neighbors."
The small aquaponic farm is at 1,500 foot elevation just off Mamalahoa Highway 190 on the slopes of Hualalai, just above Kailua-Kona, and is run with totally organic practices, where nothing gets wasted. Even the bags used to package the produce for distribution are biodegradable.
We were most impressed with the efficient use of space and time management. Every step from seed planting to seedling bed to transporting the seedlings to the water rafts is done in a way to minimize labor and wasted time. Same way with harvesting: starting with the area farthest from where the cleaning and packaging are done, the rafts are moved by pushing the harvestable crop closest to the work area as the seedlings are placed on the farthest end, eventually working their way to the front as they mature, while leaving room in the farthest part for the new seedlings.
The perimeter of the property is planted with papaya, banana, coffee trees and pineapples plus several citrus trees growing in large pots. There is a small grove of fruit trees between the front fence and the house. This is the area where the chickens live.
All of the organic waste that the chickens will not eat goes to worm bins. Worm castings are harvested and used to make 'teas' for the fruit trees and potted plants.
The only fertilizer used is from the fish and most of the fish are edible. The fish are housed in a 1,000 gallon tank which feeds several 'a'a and blue rock gravel beds where the ammonia and fish waste is filtered before feeding into four lettuce and vegetable troughs.
Chris also has several areas around the yard where he experiments with other growing techniques. An unusual system of barrels and piping serve as planting vessels for strawberries and watercress. Two 'tower cages' with heavy gage hog fencing are used for tomato cages. He lines the lower sides with a heavy material to allow fresh dirt to be contained and plants the tomatoes inside the cages.
Another innovative experiment is what he calls a 'wicking bed'. Chris fashioned a ring about 7-8 inches deep with some discarded heavy plastic tarp material. The ring sits on top of one of the aquaponics system's water rafts and a thick wick made with cotton strings was placed on the top of the raft with ends splayed, some of them dipping into the water trough. The ring was then filled with growing medium in which carrot seeds were planted. He now has beautiful carrots growing in the 'wicking bed' kept moist by the 'wicks'.
Interview with Chris Smith of Coastview Aquaponics
HHFN: How do you control rainfall or temperature?
CS: We use a 30% shade cloth to keep the lettuce from wilting on sunny days and can count on 40 inches of rain a year. We get enough rain to keep the systems topped off and we rarely have to add water.
HHFN: What method of farming do you practice?
CS: We are completely organic. Aquaponics is actually a simple ecosystem in a man-made container. We have multiple species in multiple habitats that are surviving and thriving because of each other. We cannot use chemical fertilizers or pesticides without crashing the aquaponics ecosystem. We feed all farm waste to worms or chickens. We recycle and reuse our seeding medium (black cinder) every week.
HHFN: How about weed and pest control?
CS: We have very few weeds in the system and they are easily controlled by pulling them out by hand. We use sea salt around the perimeter of the systems to keep weeds down and slugs out. We use Sluggo around the systems too. We use Dipel (an organically approved bacterial based pesticide) to keep caterpillars and cut worms at bay.
HHFN: I understand that fish feed is usually commercial and imported. Any thoughts about becoming more sustainable by finding local sources of fish feed?
CS: We currently buy imported fish food in Hilo, AquaMax and Rangen - both formulated for aquaponics. I’ve thought about and am looking at alternatives. The fish will eat some of the vegetation waste from the things growing here, and in our original small aquaponic pond I’ve let algae grow that I also feed to the fish. Maybe someone at the Energy Lab could come up with a formula and plan to collect all of the waste from the different operations and algae from the algae farm and manufacture a locally made fish food, made from the 'collective waste' generated just at the NELHA facilities....but there would have to be a demand for it before it could be feasible to do it on a commercial basis.
HHFN: What do you grow?
CS: Four different varieties of lettuce, celery, rainbow chard, kale, basil, bok choy, water cress, mint, tomatoes, carrots, onions, strawberries, Serrano peppers, bananas, papayas, eggs and tilapia.
HHFN: What seems to be your best selling items?
CS: Year round the lettuce, chard and eggs; from time to time we have other produce to share.
HHFN: How do you distribute your harvest?
CS: We offer our produce for sale to the public on a daily basis. Produce that is available for sale is stocked daily in the refrigerator which is located at the front of our property, outside our gate. There is an "honor-fridge" which is available all day. Our neighbors and other customers stop by at their convenience. The fridge gets restocked as needed.
HHFN: Tell us what you would like our readers to know about your farm.
CS: Coastview Aquaponics is an organic farm dedicated to providing our community with quality, affordable, fresh produce and aquaponics education. Our farm is family run and we sell our produce to our immediate neighborhood. We prefer to keep the food miles as low as possible. It does not make sense to us that most of our food travels more than we do!
Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture (growing fish) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil). In aquaponics, the nutrient-rich water that results from raising fish provides a natural, organic fertilizer for the growing plants in a recirculating system. As the plants use the nutrients in the water, they help to clean the water that the fish live in. This results in a natural microbial process that keeps both the fish and plants healthy, creating an ecosystem where both plants and fish can thrive. Aquaponics is an ideal answer to the aquaculture problem of disposing of nutrient rich water, and a hydroponic grower's need for nutrient rich water.
We teach aquaponics classes on a regular basis so you can learn how to be successful at growing your own food. Our farm is open for free farm tours Saturday mornings 9 am-12 pm.
Sonia R. Martinez, the Hawai'i Homegrown Food Network regular farmers market reporter, is a cookbook author and freelance food writer for several publications in Hawai'i, including The Hamakua Times of Honoka'a. She is a contributing writer for Edible Hawaiian Islands Magazine and has her own food & garden blog at soniatasteshawaii.com