Issue 20.1: February/March 2017
Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

From Room to Table

Story by Martha Cheng. Photos by Elyse Butler.

MetroGrow Hawaii, Honolulu’s most urban of urban farms, is located in an industrial part of Kaka‘ako, where the concrete does its best to stifle all things green. It’s a different story inside the eight-hundred-square-foot converted office space that this sunless, soilless farm occupies. There, on modular shelves bathed in LED light, grows a bounty of greens, shoots and microgreens, including sorrel, scallions, Thai basil, garden peas and butter lettuce. The plants’ bare roots are frequently spritzed with a nutrient-rich mist in a growing operation that aeroponic farmer Kerry Kakazu controls with his smartphone.

One shelf is loaded with ice plants. Pop a leaf in your mouth and it dissolves into a slightly tart and salty puddle on your tongue. The ice plants look like they’re covered with morning dew, but those glistening beads are actually part of the plant, and they sparkle like pink gemstones under the colored LEDs. Esthetics aside, the colored lighting serves a practical purpose.“Plants use red and blue primarily for photosynthesis,” Kakazu says. “You can save some energy by using just those colors.” Each plant variety has its quirks, though. Kakazu finds that his dwarf lettuces prefer white light, for instance, while his microgreens couldn’t care less what color the light is.

Kakazu has a doctorate in plant physiology and worked as a researcher at the University of Hawai‘i Cancer Center before striking out on his own in 2013 to start MetroGrow. He now supplies produce to a handful of Honolulu restaurants—Vino, Mahina & Sun’s and Yohei Sushi Restaurant—plus Foodland Farms supermarkets.

In his climate-controlled grow room, Kakazu can cultivate cool-weather novelties that would wilt outdoors in Hawai‘i. Some of these he grows to satisfy his own curiosity, like the ice plant, which he first tasted in Japan. Others he grows at the request of chefs; such requests range from the specific (miner’s lettuce, cilantro flowers) to the vague (something frilly, something small). Demand for MetroGrow’s urban produce has gotten so great that Kakazu is looking for a bigger space. Despite high rents he wants to remain in urban Honolulu for the convenience of his customers. Besides, he says, moving out of the city would mean “taking the metro out of MetroGrow.”