Saving Water, Feeding Molokai

Local couple utilizes efficient farming technique.

The Hills are breaking traditional farming convention with their greenhouse based crop productions.  




By Jennifer Smith

When most people think of farming they picture large tilled fields with crops slowly sprouting out of the ground. One Ho`olehua couple, however, is helping to redefine the old image of what it means to farm.

“It’s strictly hydroponic,” Ray Hill said, explaining his tomato planting operations. Utilizing a 34 ft. by 96 ft. greenhouse on their homestead, Ray and his wife Jackie are using soil-free methods that actually save water, and produce more crops per square foot than ground-based productions.

Bringing Success, and Lettuce to Molokai
After taking a class in 1994 on hydroponics at the University of Hawaii in Kona, Ray decided to explore using the new technique to grow crops on Molokai. It took several years of research, business planning, and applying for grants, but finally in 2004 the couple formed Koaniani Farms, which means “a place cooled by gentle breezes.”

With Ray handling the operations side of production, and Jackie working behind the scenes with the sales, the couple successfully sold romaine lettuce for two years.

“It was the most beautiful lettuce in the history of Molokai,” Jackie said with a proud smile on her face. It took about two years to become profitable, but the Hills eventually were selling out, with Molokai Ranch alone picking up 50 pounds of the lettuce twice a week.

Unfortunately, Ray’s on-and–off-again battle with cancer and a particularly hot summer for the crops saw the lettuce production end in 2006. But 2008 has been a good year for the Hills. With Ray back stronger than ever and a new crop of tomatoes they can raise year round, Koaniani Farms is looking to the future.

The Future is Bright
Ray’s new efforts will focus on two varieties of tomatoes. While the new crop is more labor intensive, he believes the taste and quantity produced will be worth it in the end. In a rough estimate, he calculated at full capacity the greenhouse plants could provide 2,600 tomatoes a week.
“This type of farming is very similar to organic,” Jackie said. According to Ray, because the hydroponic plants have to be given very fine man-made minerals that plants would normally absorb from the ground, they are not allowed to label the crops organic. He said they are the “same minerals in the water that the plants need and would otherwise get from the land.”

Ray said the benefits of hydroponic farming have far outweighed the challenges up to this point. “You don’t have any bugs, and you don’t have any weeds,” or at least those he has are “minimal and easy to control.” He also said “in a small space you can do a whole lot more,” and faster. From planting to first crop it takes about 65 days.

The operations are also significantly less expensive to run. With lettuce, the Hills were running water almost all day, every day, but their new crop only requires about 20 minutes three times a day. The bags containing the plants absorb the water and nutrients, and all run off is caught and runs back into a tank for recirculation.

The biggest challenge according to the Hills will be the shorter shelf life that tomatoes have.  However, Ray argued that the taste will be worth it. He said 90 percent of tomatoes in stores are bred specifically for color and shelf life, but he is growing his for the flavor.

Spreading Their Seeds
Ray takes a lot of pride in his work and has big plans for the future, and while he has thought of taking on help, he said he has yet to find the interest from people. “I would teach anybody.”

The Hills are especially interested in getting the younger generation of Hawaiians involved. “I would like to see the kids get involved,” Ray said.

With the ability to work in a shaded greenhouse, while producing more per square inch and with less hassling with weeds and bugs, the Hills believe hydroponic farming could be the future of farming.

The couple plans to sell their crops first on Molokai, and then to the surrounding islands. Jackie has spoken with several interested vendors. “They are asking me about the tomatoes already.”

To find out more about Koaniani Farms, or hydroponic farming call the Hills at 567-9407.


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