Monday, January 19, 2009

Green Worms


When I first met Glen Martinez at the IHS Rooftop Aquaponics Garden meeting on Friday, I liked him immediately.  He was wearing a funny paper-boy/golfer's cap, offering me chocolate-caramel cookies, and he was constantly being "reigned in" by the meeting's moderator each time he launched into a passionate description of an aspect of their green roof project, his blue eyes twinkling brightly.  

My brother James and I have had Glen's name come up in several unrelated, seemingly random conversations over the last few months, so meeting him so unexpectedly was a pleasantly karmic surprise.

James is an architecture student at UH-Manoa, with a passion for urban garden and permaculture initiatives.  He is finishing his studies soon, and is planning to conduct his thesis on "resource positive" buildings - buildings which go beyond producing their own energy.  The grin that creeps on his face as he pulls up (fashionably late, in true Lynch-style) says it all: "I'm home."

Now that we've spent 4 hours touring Olomana Gardens, in Glen's words: "an informal, old-style, Hawaiian, tropical garden that is a model for modern, sustainable agriculture", I like him even more. 

Most tourists pass right through Waimanalo in the blink of an eye on their way to Bellows Beach camping Grounds, Makapu'u Beach, or Sea Life Park, and never guess that they are passing through Hawaiian Homestead and agricultural lands.

Glen is only the 4th landowner of record; the parcel under his stewardship is a kuleana lot that has been passed along directly from the Hawaiian Royal Throne.  The property is nestled in the back of Waimanalo Valley, so close to the foot of the Ko'olau mountain range that the sun was disappearing behind the towering peaks as I drove up at 4 o'clock in the afternoon.

Fed by the Waikupanaha spring, the valley used to be filled with breadfruit, mountain apples, kukuinut and coconut trees, sweet potato, sugar cane, and taro patches with banks covered in ti and wauke plants.  Today, the valley is home to Native Hawaiian Homesteaders, military folk living off-base, a handful of small family farm and nursery operations, and the only horse polo field on the Winward Side of the island.  

Olomana Gardens is "a production and demonstration, organic market garden including organic, biointensively-produced vegetables, and selected fruits, herbs and ornamental plants; exotic chickens, geese, turkeys and ducks, naturally-raised eggs (no antibiotics, no hormones)" [from their website].  

Papaya and calamungai trees (makes the best chicken soup ever - just ask any Filipino!), ti leaf, sweet potatoes, taro, lettuce, a variety of herbs, we even spotted a cacao (chocolate) tree....all of it doesn't grow in the topsoil, instead they are happily and healthily growing in worm castings (aka worm poop).  This is created by thousands of composting worms which munch their way through organic greenwaste and animal manures to produce a natural, nutrient-rich fertilizer that looks like topsoil, tastes like topsoil....but ain't topsoil!  

Despite the recent heavy rains, the "soil" the plants grew in was still quite loamy, soft, and easy to break apart.  Glen keeps diving into patches of dirt with both hands to eagerly give us a sniff and feel of the stuff - it smells like sweet mother earth, with notes of rain and a hint of fresh mountain air, the stuff that life is made of. 

We walk into the horse stables and were invited to sniff the air - guess what?  No smell!  The worms were doing their thing in here too, breaking down the horse's wastes into loamy-sweet plant food.  Same thing in the chicken pens, and where the ducks roost.  Amazing...I'm starting to really like these little wriggly guys.

Glen is most excited about the aquaponics system being installed.  A recent blackout caused filters to failand wiped out over 2,500 fish at a neighbor's fishfarm...they had to use a tractor to bury them all....and with fertilizer costs steadily increasing, using aquaponics to minimize costs and maximize efficiency takes Olomama Gardens a step closer to creating a completelly self-sustaining ecosystem on the farm.  

In an aquaponics system, the fish eat the worms and black soldier fly larvae that are munching through the green and organic waste created by the farm, and then poop in the water.  The water is recirculated through cinder growbeds, where the plants grow very quickly by drawing the rich nutrients (fish poop) out of the water, thereby filtering the water so that it can be recirculated back to the fish as clean, healthy water for them to eat and poop in.  

The Aussies are the world leaders in developing these systems, and so Glen is heading off this week to visit Brisbane, Australia; spending thousands of dollars to attend "aquaponics bootcamp" with the world's foremost expert on the matter, Dr James Rakocy.

We meet some of the interns who live and work on the farm, in exchange for the learning opporunity - there is a landscaping contractor, a master's student, and a full-time dolphin instructor hanging out and drinking hot tea under the tents of the communal ecclectic, and very intelligent group of people.

As introductions are made and short bios given, it dawns on me that this sustainability thing is no longer the realm of leftover hippies and crazed tree-hugging environmentalists.  There are some very smart, forward-thinking, highly conscious, outward-focussed individuals that are really embracing this philosophy....and the striking genius of it all lies in its simplicity.  Fish poops, dirties its water.  Plant eats the poop, cleans the water.  And the cycle starts again.  Simple.  Beautiful.

At what point did we in the western world decide that life had to be so complicated, so layered in its intricacies?  Did we inadvertently seduce ourselves into complacency through our indulgence in the creature comforts of progress?  Farmers throughout the world have been farming the same plots of land for thousands of years, and in two generations the western world has poisoned and leeched many of our farmlands in the mindless pursuit of profit.

Thankfully, ventures such as Olomana Gardens show us that we are poised on the brink of a new level of collective consciousness.  The pain that lies ahead for so many of us as we weather the global downturn that shall be upon us for the next few years will no doubt prove to the masses that unconscious capitalism simply does not work.  Conscious capitalism, in which a "triple bottom line" of profitability encompasses social, environmental, and economic sustainability will be the way for businesses and organizations to innovate and prosper.  Imagine a big business where the more money it makes, the more our environment and societies benefit - does such an animal even exist?

My brother James and I are so impressed with Glen's passion and knowledge, and with the tranquil setting of Waimanalo Valley, that we stay and chat with this man until well after dark.  We have long been interested in creating a sustainable development of our own and used to sit out on our patio in Kailua, the next neighborhood over, and dream about what ours would look like: kalo (taro) patches, organic vegies and herbs, courtyards in the main house, a horse stable for our old roomate, yurt or hale [pronounced hah-lei] structures where healing arts could be practised, a workshed to build stuff with our Dad, high-performance technology center for communications with global projects ... the list goes on....  Think feudal-era-rural-Japanese-farming-compund-meets-James-Bond-villan-lair and you get the general idea.

When we learn that there will be a vacany opening up at Olomana Gardens soon, we catch each other's eyes across the tent and reach an unspoken agreement: "We'll be moving in soon."




ABOUT OLOMANA GARDENS:  Olomana Gardens is dedicated to serving the local community as an informal, old-style, Hawaiian, tropical garden that is a model for modern, sustainable agriculture.  Organic fruits and vegetables, composting and tiller worms, worm compost, organic plants, and organic pallet gardens are available for purchase.  Agriculture workshops and tours are a regular feature.  Learn more at:

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