In Kakaako, A Growing Urban Farm Reaches New Heights

Dec 27, 2016

Rows of lettuce growing in MetroGrow Hawaii, a vertical farming venture in urban Honolulu.
Credit Molly Solomon

Between the high rise buildings and industrial warehouses, a farm is the last thing you’d expect to find in urban Kaka‘ako. But one business is creating a space for growing food in an unexpected way.

From the outside, this looks like just another building in Honolulu’s developing neighborhood of Kaka‘ako. But step inside a door on the second floor and you’re greeted with stacks of red and green lettuce glowing under rows of LED lights. This is Hawai‘i’s first indoor vertical farm.

“This is an ice plant, or crystal lettuce,” said Kerry Kakazu, the owner and operator of MetroGrow Hawai‘i. “It gives a little bit of a salty taste, nice as a garnish with poke or oysters.”

His love of technology and plants led him to research the growing field of vertical farming.

“Vertical farming just means it’s grown indoors and in multiple levels,” said Kakazu. “People have done vertical farming that’s soil based, but most of it is hydroponics.”

MetroGrow Hawaii owner Kerry Kakazu.
Credit Molly Solomon

Kakazu uses a method he calls aeroponics, where the roots are suspended in air and bathed in a nutrient-rich mist, instead of soaking in water or planted in soil. This environment gives Kakazu more control of his crops. And since it’s indoors, he doesn’t have to worry about weather, pests and other agricultural challenges.

“This shows that you can do this kind of farming,” he said. “I don’t know if this would ever be enough to supply a large amount of food, like a more traditional farm. But for specialty crops or to grow things that are hard to grow outdoors, I think this is an ideal setup.”

Kakazu started MetroGrow Hawai‘i in 2014. He produces about 100 heads of lettuce a week and a couple dozen containers of microgreens. His clients range from high end restaurants in Chinatown to an herbology store that buys medicinal plants grown by Kakazu.

He’s looking to expand out of his 800 square foot space, but has run into challenge other urban dwellers are familiar with: high rents.

Credit Molly Solomon

“That’s the one thing with urban food. There’s so much competition for the space, so costs can be high,” Kakazu explained. “Whether it can continue to survive this way, or if it has to be subsidized, somebody’s going to have to want food grown in the urban core. So we’ll have to see.”

Kakazu said eventually he’d like to be able to grow enough produce to feed the flow of residents who are moving into his neighborhood.