Issue 14.6: Dec. 2011 / Jan. 2012

The Aquapodyssey

Story by Michael Shapiro

Photos by Monte Costa


If adulthood means the growing awareness of one’s own doom, my coming of age began with a wild onion. In spring, wild onions—just about the only edible thing growing in suburban New York—were the first plants to poke through the thawing soil. Being curious and totally ignorant of poison, I discovered that they tasted like the scallions my mother put in salad, so I dug up a bunch and brought them to her.


“Throw those away!” she chided, chopping the industrial-size carrots she’d bought at the A&P. “Are you crazy?”


Confused, I offered the anemic cluster of bulbs and wilting stalks in my dirty hand. “But … they’re scallions!”


“You don’t know where they’ve been! A dog might have peed on them,” she said. “Or a raccoon.”


Unable to prove that a dog or raccoon had not peed on them, I tossed them in the trash—this was in the mid-’70s, long before the words “compost heap” became fashionable, on Long Island anyway.


The takeaway? Nature couldn’t be trusted but the A&P could. Still—if food came out of the ground, then the A&P must be picking it from somewhere. Why couldn’t we just, you know, cut out the middleman and eat what was growing in the yard?


So to paraphrase my hero, Henry David Thoreau, I moved to Hawai‘i because I wished to live deliberately. To be somewhere, I figured, that if global civilization implodes, as it’s quite clearly preparing to do, I’d survive. While everyone was stripping bark off the trees and eating beetle grubs back home, I’d be lolling in a hammock, stuffed on pineapple and papaya. I didn’t know anything about farming, didn’t know anything about Hawai‘i. But I came to my Walden-in-the- Pacific to follow Thoreau’s example: to live simply and be self-reliant. With Hawai‘i’s abundant rainforests, rich soil and year-round growing season, how hard could that possibly be?


Hard, turns out. Hawai‘i’s rainforests aren’t so abundant after all—you’d probably starve if you got lost in one. The ancient Hawaiians brought their own food with them on their canoes, and they developed a resource management system that sustained, by some estimates, more than a million people. But that time is long gone, and today Hawai‘i is like everywhere else: dependent. Some 85 percent of the Islands’ food is shipped in; if the freighters were suddenly to stop coming, life would come down to tree bark and beetle grubs pretty quickly.


Nevertheless, I gave it a try: I put in tomatoes, lettuce, eggplant. Living near the ocean, though, it was tough going. The salty air, sandy soil and drought conditions meant I couldn’t put much in the ground—I had to use pots and douse the plants daily. Even with the miracle of Miracle-Gro (a grudging concession to modernity), leaf miners carved an alphabet of death in the tomato leaves. Slugs scalped entire heads of Manoa lettuce in a single night. The eggplants were purple bulges, more tumor than fruit. Thoreau had spent $30 to build his cabin and grow two acres of beans, which he sold for about nine bucks (tidy for the 1840s). After spending a couple of hundred real dollars and many more in sweat equity, I’d grown bupkis.


And then ancient ingenuity came to my rescue. When the Aztecs settled Tenochtitlan, which was surrounded by the swamps of Lake Texcoco, they developed a system of growing plants on rafts called chinampas. The chinampas replicated in microcosm a natural system: The fish in the marshes produced nitrogenous waste, which fertilized the plants. The plants in turn would clean and oxygenate the water, which helped the fish. The Aztecs ate both and grew quite the spiffy empire. The ancient Chinese also had a system involving catfish, rice and duck poo (not in that order), and they did all right, too.


In the late 1980s researchers in North Carolina created the first small-scale closed-loop “aquaponics” system (a marriage of the words “aquaculture” and “hydroponics”) based on these ancient principles. In theory it’s simple: Fill a container with a growing medium—sand, gravel, cinder, etc.—and root your plants. Put a tank of water under the grow bed and add fish (tilapia are popular because they’re edible, hardy and poop a lot; aesthetes prefer koi). Pump water from the tank up into the grow bed, and let it drain back into the tank. The growing medium filters out solid waste and algae. Bacteria that develop in the medium convert the fish urine into nitrogen, which the plants soak up. Everyone’s happy: The pee-powered plants explode with verdure, the fish prosper and the lazy gardener has but to harvest and eat, so say the legends.


Plus, it’s cheap. The legends also say you can cobble together a small system for under $200—the primary cost being the pump (about $80). Otherwise you need two containers, a sturdy table, PVC plumbing, growing medium, plants and fish. Web sites touting aquaponics—there are hundreds—freely deploy adjectives like “easy” and “effortless” and “simple.” But most of those web sites are hawking kits, some for outrageous prices, and I wanted no part of a kit. I could almost hear Thoreau clucking his self-reliant tongue from the great Oversoul.


Like most things experts call effortless, there are a thousand ways for the noob to screw them up. If the complexity of a DIY project can be measured by the number of hardware store visits it requires, then building one’s own aquaponics system from scratch is downright Byzantine. “Back again?” chimed the cash register lady on the occasion of my third visit to True Value in one day, that time for a 38- cent PVC joint. But the missing joint was the least of my troubles: My grow bed was too deep, my pump too wimpy—it didn’t help that I’d bought one-inch instead of three-quarter-inch PVC. And the drainage hole I’d drilled in the grow bed was too wide, meaning a) I couldn’t get a seal around the drainpipe, and b) I had to buy another grow bed.


Clearly all the videos on YouTube were useless in the face of my raw ineptitude. I needed help. I took comfort in knowing that even Thoreau didn’t quite do it alone; every so often his old friend Ralph Waldo Emerson would amble out to Walden Pond to check on him, and he’d bring a little something Mrs. E. whipped up in case crazy Henry was feeling peckish, which he invariably was.


Charlie Palumbo’s backyard in Niu Valley is a tiny Tenochtitlan: Schools of golden tilapia circle lazily in 160-gallon tanks, and the grow beds above explode with bok choi and basil and fat, fat tomatoes. No space is uncluttered by something productive. It’s not the prettiest thing you can do to your yard, but Charlie says he never buys his vegetables from a supermarket.


Charlie’s an architect, mostly, but started his side business, AquaPono, in 2010 to guide lost souls who simply want to grow something to eat. If you’re not the enterprising self-starter, Charlie will come to your house and set you up with everything you need, from pump to PVC. (Charlie’s got much bigger ideas, though: He’d like to turn the tilapia-filled reflecting ponds around the Hawai‘i State Capitol into a massive aquaponics farm. “Why not?” he says. “They’re perfect—and the Legislature would finally produce something.”) Charlie chuckles paternally as I recite my litany of rookie mistakes and then shows me how to do it right—which means hitting the hardware store. I can’t, I tell him, face the cash register lady at True Value again. Charlie suggests Waimanalo Feed Supply, which stocks every part I’ll need. Not quite a kit, but close. Charlie smiles. “No one’s an expert at this yet,” he says, standing beside a radiant Swiss chard. “We’re all just figuring it out. Aquaponics is deceptively simple-looking. That’s the elegant part of it.”


If the warehouse at Waimanalo Feed Supply is any indicator, backyard aquaponics is brisk business in Hawai‘i. What only a couple of years ago was a storage area for Puppy Chow and horse pellets is today crammed ceiling-high with grow beds, pumps, siphons, cinder, PVC and live tilapia in all sizes, from fingerling to fillet-ready. An employee notices me wandering the inventory, probably looking as clueless as I feel.


“Eh, you get aquaponics?” he says.


“Yeah,” I say.


“How big?” he says.


“Cheap,” I say.


One hour and $345 later, I walk out with the basics: muscular pump, all the right holes drilled in the right places and pre-cut PVC plumbing. Shaking off the stench of personal failure, I look ahead to a verdant future. Once I get the system going, I figure it’ll take me only about five years to eat enough salad to pay for it.


My eight golden tilapia (I’ve given them Aztec names) paddle indolently in the tank, apparently devoting most of their energy to the manufacture of fertilizer. But I’ve got no complaints: Three weeks in and the Manoa lettuce can barely contain its own succulence. Same with the kale, the cherry tomato, the jalapeño pepper. The zucchini is unfurling leaves the size of Roman shields and firing fusillades of brilliant golden blossoms—and not a leaf miner in sight.


But then, three weeks and a day in, disaster. The first victim is Malinalxochitl. The next morning it’s Coyolxauhqui. The following day’s a veritable tilapolypse: Huitzilpochtli, Itzcóatl and poor, poor Chimalpopoca, all dead. I shoot Charlie a histrionic email with the subject line: ???!


Clyde, he replies. Go see Clyde Tamaru.


“RLO,” Clyde says. “I can almost guarantee it.” He means “rickettsia-like organism,” a disease that’s become common in farm-raised tilapia since they’ve rocketed from a vaguely disgusting Third World canal-dweller to a pescavore’s delight (tilapia are now fish number one in commercial aquaculture worldwide). But it’s hard to find healthy stock in Hawai‘i, Clyde says. “The big question right now is where can you get decent feed fish. That’s what we’re working on as we speak.”


“We” is the University of Hawai‘i College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resource’s Center for Tropical and Subtropical Aquaculture, a very long name for the couple of acres back of Kane‘ohe where Clyde and his team research what works and doesn’t work for Island aquaculture. Clyde seconds Charlie’s assertion that no one’s an expert at aquaponics yet, but Clyde’s probably the closest thing Hawai‘i’s got to it. His goal is to equip aquaculturists, whether they’re commercial farmers, backyard gardeners or hapless idiots, with quality information. The center’s been around since the ’70s, but it’s only recently—in 2009—gotten into aquaponics, which is still a bit like the Wild West of aquaculture. “There’s a lot of information on the Internet,” Clyde says, “but a lot of misinformation as well—so much that we just can’t keep up. The challenge—and opportunity—is that aquaponics can be done so many different ways. Right here,” he gestures to the various systems burbling, spitting and sucking, “we’ve got six different ways you can do aquaponics in your backyard.”


The trials are taking aquaponics beyond the “sure-fire” food crops like Manoa lettuce, bok choi and basil. One grad student, Leina‘ala Bright, is growing Hawaiian medicinal plants like ‘olena, popolo and ‘uhaloa. The center’s also test-driving new fish: “We’re tired of tilapia, so what’s next?” asks Clyde. Maybe pacu, a South American fish resembling a piranha, he says. The aim is to make Hawai‘i aquaponics a completely self-sustaining, commercially viable food production system powered by renewable energy and fueled by fish food developed here in the Islands. Something that could keep us all fed if the “boat never comes,” says Clyde, a man clearly after my own self-reliant and anxious heart.


“The exciting thing is that now anybody—I mean anybody—can farm in their own house,” he says. “You don’t get dirty, you don’t have to bend over,” he laughs. “It’s a paradigm shift.”


Fine, fine, I say, but what about my fish? What about the RLO?


“Well,” says Clyde, “if you put new fish in, they could get infected.” The safest bet, he says, is to drain the tank, remove the plants, clean the cinder. Start all over.


But what about the surviving fish? I ask. What of Cuitláhuac, Moquihuix and Itzquauhtzin?


“They might be carriers,” Clyde shrugs. “Kill them.”


I’m ready to concede defeat. Getting nature to do something other than what it naturally does has proved too much for me. And though I don’t relish the idea of once again wandering the antiseptic aisles of a supermarket, at least I know I’ll be able to walk out produce-rich if cash-poor. But then I see: the scallions.


Erupting from one of Clyde’s grow beds, a forest of green onions, two feet tall and fat as leeks.


“Those aren’t … those are … those must be leeks?” I say.


“Nah,” Clyde says. “Green onion. We let ’em go too long.”


“Why too long?”


“’Cuz they get like this!”


But to me, having onions the size of a human femur is a good thing. And so I go at it with renewed commitment and vigor. Three weeks and eight healthy, new fish later (plus a few teaspoons of liquid iron … Charlie Palumbo’s secret for ginormous onions) my own scallion forest is rocketing out of the grow bed. When global civilization implodes, as it’s quite clearly preparing to do, I’ll at least be able to have my beetle grubs in a tasty onion wrap. Henry would be proud.