In a Waimānalo neighborhood where rows of new homes line the street like pastel-colored
Easter eggs, Ilima Ho-Lastimosa’s home is hard to miss.
Driving up, the first thing you see is a profusion of tomatoes, basil, parsley,
Hawaiian chili pepper, and native Hawaiian medicinal plants. The plant beds are
on tables arranged in a U-shape around an above-ground pool filled with golden tilapia.
The suburban farm continues along the side of the house with a narrow yard that
looks like a small jungle with a grove of banana trees, kalo (taro), and ‘uala
(sweet potato). The kalo leaves and ‘uala vines hang over the sides of their
planters. The banana leaves reach up to shade their home.
Ho-Lastimosa is an early adopter of backyard aquaponic farming. She grows enough
produce to feed her family while teaching her children an unusual farming lesson:
how to use fish to grow food quickly.
Aquaponics is a method of farming that relies on a symbiotic relationship between
fish and plants. In these closed systems, wastewater from a tank filled with fish
is pumped into growing “water beds” filled with plants. The plants take
out the nitrates and ammonia from the wastewater; the purified water is then pumped
back into the fish tank.
The nutrient-rich water from the fish acts as a powerful plant fertilizer. Plants
in aquaponic beds can grow up to six times faster than plants grown in conventional
garden beds. Ho-Lastimosa’s kalo, for example, is ready for harvest after
six months; traditional wetland kalo takes nine months to mature. Aquaponic units
vary in size, from small fish tanks for inside the home to pool-sized tanks that
feed row after row of produce.
Community Fish Ponds
For Ho-Lastimosa, aquaponics is not just about getting bigger vegetables faster.
Her ultimate goal is to build healthy communities that work together. One of her
main priorities is to encourage families in her community to eat more fruits and
vegetables. Ho-Lastimosa works as the gardening facilitator at Blanche Pope Elementary
School, where she’s found that her students are very skilled at encouraging
their parents to try aquaponics.
“Kids are the best assets,” she says. “They don’t complain,
they enjoy it, they learn how to clean and cook the fish, and they eat the vegetables.
The kids teach the parents and the parents are going to do what the kids like.”
A Sustainable Future
Ho-Lastimosa is also a co-founder of Ho‘oulu Pacific, an organization that
helps families use aquaponics to raise enough food to feed themselves and sell any
extras. With co-founders David Walfish, Eric Martinson, Keith Sakuda, and Scott
Shibata, Ho-Lastimosa plans to build 50 more systems for families in Waimānalo
and hopes to expand the program across the Hawaiian Islands and the Pacific.
Striving to move Hawai‘i toward food security, Ho‘oulu Pacific is made
up of activists, entrepreneurs, and researchers and professors from the Oceanic
Institute and the University of Hawai‘i.
“We can feed ourselves,” Ho-Lastimosa says. “Right now, we are
overly dependent on the outside world for our food. I know that our küpuna used
the ahupua‘a to feed themselves. Every household could have an aquaponics
system – it’s a choice that we need to make.”
By providing agricultural training and supplies to families, Ho‘oulu Pacific
fosters and promotes community-building. Collective growers meet every month to
get technological support and agricultural advice from experts. Ho‘oulu Pacific
also provides families with health counseling, nutrition education, and entrepreneurial
guidance from a network of community partners.
Coming Full Circle
Island communities feeding themselves is a time-honored tradition in Hawai‘i.
The ahupua‘a system divided the island into pie-shaped wedges that ran from
the mountain to the ocean. Each ahupua‘a had enough fresh water, agricultural
land, and ocean access to feed and sustain a thriving community.
Ho-Lastimosa reimagines this system as a community of aquaponic farmers. She hopes
to bring our island community back to its self-sustaining roots and reduce our dependence
on imported food.
To find out more and support Ho‘oulu Pacific, please visit