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Farm Friday: Ili‘ili Farms in Wai‘anae

This certified organic farm is one of only a handful of commercial aquaponic farms in the state.


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Dan Ching started Ili‘ili Farms in 2012 after retiring as a structural engineer. Now he spends just about every day here, growing lettuce and herbs on this 2-acre aquaponics farm in Wai‘anae.
Photos: Catherine Toth Fox

 

When Dan Ching retired a few years ago as a structural engineer and general contractor, he wanted something to keep him busy.

 

Instead of golfing or traveling, he decided to farm. In 2012, he and his wife, Mei, leased two acres of ag land in Wai‘anae’s Lualualei Valley and began growing vegetables with aquaponics, a method that uses fish effluent water to provide nutrients to plants without using soil. He liked that this nontraditional farming approach used less water than soil-based agriculture and offered a way to grow produce organically. And he was growing, essentially, two crops: vegetables and fish.

 

In just a couple of years, Ili‘ili Farms (named after the road on which the farm is located) started growing and selling USDA organic-certified Mānoa lettuce, Shanghai bok choy, watercress, green onions and mint to Whole Foods Market, Foodland and Down To Earth stores on O‘ahu. His greens and herbs are also on the menus at MW Restaurant, Artizen by MW, BLT Steak and Fête.

 

Ask him about his relatively quick success and Ching, 67, just shrugs it off.

 

“We’re not here to make money,” he says, sitting in his office where he watches his workers process bins of freshly harvested greens. “This was just something to keep us busy.”

 

Ili‘ili Farms is located on two acres in Wai‘anae. Greens are grown in these elevated grow beds, which makes harvesting much easier for Ching and his employees.

 

Ching grows a variety of lettuces, all using fish effluent water to provide needed nutrients for the plants.

 

Three 5,000-gallon fish tanks hold about 5,000 tilapia.

 

His “retirement” has turned into a second career. Ching and his wife are at the farm just about every day—and they do everything from planting to harvesting to packaging. (They finally hired someone to deliver their produce, which they were doing themselves, too.)

 

We walk through his farm, a former orchid house in this arid area surrounded by the Wai‘anae Range. Just outside the enclosed processing area—really a certified commercial kitchen—is a refrigerator container in which the produce is stored before delivery. Beyond that are three 5,000-gallon tanks with about 5,000 tilapia swimming inside. Pumps filter the nutrient-rich water to a nearby shadehouse with 30 96-foot-long grow beds of lettuce, bok choy, watercress and herbs.

 

Beside greens, Ching grows watercress, bok choy, herbs and green onions (shown here).

 

Only half of this two-acre farm is in production right now. Ching plans to expand the farm sometime soon. But don’t bug him about it. He’s retired.

 

“People ask me to grow this, grow that,” Ching says. “I tell them I’m retired. I don’t need the headache.”

 

Ili‘ili Farms, 87-965 Ili‘ili Road, Wai‘anae, 478-0245, iliilifarms.com. Find the farm’s produce at Foodland, Whole Foods Market and Down To Earth stores across O‘ahu or at the Kaka‘ako Farmers Market on Saturday mornings at Ward Warehouse.

 

This is part of an occasional series called Farm Friday, which highlights Hawai‘i’s vibrant and diverse agricultural industry. Every month we will visit farms, talk to food producers and discuss issues that affect the community from which our food comes.

 

READ MORE STORIES BY CATHERINE TOTH FOX

 

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