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Large-scale aquaponic lettuce by Kunia Country Farms

Aquaponics operation at Kunia Country Farms, Kunia, Oʻahu.Aquaponics operation at Kunia Country Farms, Kunia, Oʻahu.Kunia Country Farms started operations in 2010, transforming former pineapple land in Kunia into a lettuce farm. The farm utilizes an aquaponics system, where crops are grown in containers that float on water. Fish (which are excluded from the crop area) provide a source of fertilizer. “Aquaponics is 6–8 times more productive than ground cropping,” estimates co-owner Jason Brand, “which can save costs on land, materials, and labor, allowing us to be competitive with mainland lettuce while delivering a product with a much longer shelf life.” The company’s growing, harvesting, and packaging operations are continually being refined. “Our number one cost is labor. Mainland producers achieve a cost-effective economy of scale due to large land areas and mechanization. With our relatively small-scale operation, we have to develop other efficiencies in our growing, harvesting, and packaging methods, which we have done.”

By late 2012, after expanding twice on borrowed capital, the operation became profitable, with wholesale prices comparable to those of imported mainland sources. Rather than sell at farmers markets, the company has chosen to sell high volumes through wholesale channels. Currently customers include two of the larger supermarkets on O‘ahu and several restaurants. Brand projects, “Recent Hawai‘i State agricultural statistics show that Hawai‘i has been importing 80–85% of lettuce consumed here. We have not yet dented the demand.” The company also has a line of gourmet mixed greens for higher end restaurants. Rather than focusing on cutting, washing, and packaging of their mixed greens, they deliver salad mixes still growing in their trays. Restaurants harvest as they use the greens, allowing them to serve the freshest greens possible.

“Our overarching goal is for Hawai‘i to become food independent based on sustainable agricultural techniques,” articulates Brand when recounting the origins of his business, “and we are doing this by focusing on product niches that are economically feasible in today’s marketplace.” Although the farm is not certified organic, it is food safety certified, receiving one of the highest certification scores in Hawai‘i. Even though food safety certification requires a heavy recordkeeping burden, Brand says, “from a business standpoint I get to see and understand our data. Because we are recording productivity, health of workers, etc., we have important data which we can analyze later on.” The owners received food safety training from Jim Hollyer of UH CTAHR’s food safety coaching team, including training audits that allowed management to refine and improve their practices. Other technical support for the operation came from aquaponics expert Clyde Tamaru of CTAHR, who assisted by sourcing fish and advising on plant disease issues. Erik Shimizu and Steven Chiang of the Agribusiness Incubator program helped build a cost of production spreadsheet. “These guys really understand the way inputs and outputs work in small businesses,” praises Brand.

With an eye towards a bigger goal of Hawai‘i food self-sufficiency, Kunia Country Farms supports the local community in several ways: educational tours of their farm upon request, purchasing from other local businesses where possible, and donations to the food bank. “We would like to see a bicycle path through the Kunia area, similar to the Napa Valley bicycle farm tour path. We are looking for ways to support the local economy,” envisions Brand.

Kunia Country Farms, LLC, Kunia, O‘ahu
Jason Brand, Cary Takenaka, C. Scott Wo, owners

This profile was excerpted with permission of the authors from:

Elevitch, C., and K. Love. 2013. Adding Value to Locally Grown Crops in Hawai‘i: A Guide for Small Farm Enterprise Innovation. Permanent Agriculture Resources, Holualoa, Hawai‘i. www.valueadded.info

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