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  • Productive Farming in a Small Urban Space

    September 19, 2021 4 min read 0 Comments

    Productive Farming in a Small Urban Space

    Kupu Place Aquaponics is on a mission to return agriculture to lands that were historically used for growing crops. Co-owners Anthony Mau and Steven Yee are born and raised locals who each studied different facets of agriculture at the University of Hawai‘i. At their urban farm they are working with the climate in Hawaii to grow microgreens, aquaponic lettuce and edible flowers outdoors year round. 

    The Kupu Place journey started in 2017 and has given the owners the opportunity to teach each other and use technology to sustainably grow the best food in a very small space. These cousins may bicker occasionally but it is clear from their success that they bring out the best in each other. With a respective PhD in molecular biosciences and bioengineering, and a BS in tropical plants / soil sciences, Anthony and Steven are well equipped to put technology to work to grow healthy food. 

    Man standing under high tunnel with microgreens in hawaii

    Making the most of the growing space you have

    Watch the linked video to see how creative and careful use of space is allowing Kupu to be incredibly productive on 1/64 of an acre. Using custom built structures with greenhouse panels and shade cloth to facilitate even plant growth, they are making the most of the unique growing environment the Hawaii offers. Anthony does a wonderful job of explaining how they have tailored their growing spaces to the microclimates and constraints of growing in an urban environment. 

    Giant tilapia flourish in the aquaponic tank. Microgreens are carefully arranged on 3-tiered shelves and are moved up and out of the system as the light needs of the plants change. The walkways throughout their farm are designed for an easy work environment and beneficial airflow. It is clear in looking at their operation that Anthony and Steven have carefully thought about the needs of the plants, animals and farmers on their farm.  

    Using challenges to pivot a business for the better

    These amazing growers have shown that they are ready and willing to pivot as problems and needs arise. Around minute 37 in the video Anthony talks about how they were able to triple production in their aquaponics system. He recognized a problem with the fertility that their original set up was providing to the deep water culture beds. By converting the system to decoupled aquaponics they were able to grow 300 heads of amazing lettuce at a time with only 50 fish to provide nutrients.   

    Dealing with the unprecedented

    This last year offered a host of challenges to Kupu Place with many restaurants canceling orders due to COVID shutdowns. They took the time to move forward with fulfilling what they saw as an obligation, to increase their production and pivot their business to be able to provide food to their community with more direct to consumer sales. The farmers at Kupu are showing how urban farms can increase food security for their community in times of need. 

    Their new website provides an easy window for other locals to order directly from the farm. Now offering pick up of orders from the popular KCC Farmers’ Market as well as delivery for their restaurant customers. Kupu has positioned themselves well to keep up with increasing demand as the restaurant market reopens on the island. 

    With their custom designed microgreen mixes and a careful focus on Asian varieties, Kupu Place offers nutritious food to delight customers’ palates. The namesake Kupu Mix makes beautiful use of brightly colored amaranth, chard and a spicy kick of mizuna. Their Sunshine Mix offers a cheerful variety of edible flowers and microgreens to brighten any dish.  While the Chop Suey Mix contains a secret blend of micros including cilantro, green onion, fennel, and radish, that is perfect for adventurous home cooks and chefs alike. They are also providing fresh herbs and edible flowers to help enliven dishes. 

    Man harvesting lettuce

    The logistics of sustainable farming in Hawaii

    While talking with Nick from Bootstrap Farmer, Anthony explains how he interprets sustainability by asking; are the people happy, are you functioning well, is your vision for the business something your community can get behind? From shipping to seeding the farmers at Kupu Place are thinking about the sustainability of what they do. Careful use of aquaponic nutrients, making use of the unique light and heat availability in their growing spaces, and consideration of the need to ship in many of their inputs have allowed them to maximize their use of space and resources.

    Composting spent media is an integral part of the system. They have multiple compost bins that allow them to regenerate their soil for use in larger operations off the property at another farm. (Reusing spent media even after it has been composted is tricky in microgreen operations. Because of the possibility of soft bodied insect pests and fungal issues, on-farm made compost is subject to strict regulations and is not advisable for small operations.)

    Understanding Pricing

    A grower on the mainland may be surprised by the prices that Kupu Place is charging. The truth of pricing is that you must price your products to account for all of your inputs. In Hawaii these inputs can be double or triple the price that other farmers experience. Shipping and labor must be accounted for and on an island these come at a premium. It is an important lesson for any farmer, know what you need to charge to keep your business running and successful. If you have faith in your numbers you won’t be afraid to charge what your produce is worth.

    Being a good neighbor

    Urban farming comes with the unique challenge of farming with close neighbors. It is clear from their relationship with their neighbors that these guys are excelling here. Careful communication and the occasional delivery of fresh produce go a long way towards a good working relationship with the surrounding properties. The neighbors in this multi-generational area are so happy with the business that one has even offered up their own backyard as space for Kupu Place to expand into.  

    Watch the Video!