Fish, worms and poop
Olomana Gardens / Imagine a time some 30 years ago, before cell phones or the Internet, when the word “green” more often than not referred to marijuana and money and chartreuse was a fashionable color. During that generation, two men, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, put their heads together to outline how they believed it was possible to obtain a sustainable culture by creating living systems without waste. They called it Permaculture, from the words “permanent” and “agriculture,” and introduced it in their book, Permaculture One.
Permaculture is all about reducing waste by designing ecosystems that are self-contained, much like in nature. In 1978, when the book was released, the word sustainability was not in wide use, and Permaculture became the catch phrase for earth-conscious enthusiasts.
When Glenn Martinez and his wife Liz opened their farm in Waimänalo over a decade ago, Glenn knew he would farm organically. What he couldn’t have fathomed is how his farm would evolve over that decade, seamlessly aligning with the principles of Permaculture. And not by luck, mind you. Glenn is an articulate, mechanically minded, forward-thinking famer and stands by his convictions of education and hard work. It’s no accident Olomana Gardens is leading the charge on Oahu in aquaponics, one of the smartest and most sustainable ways to farm organically.
Surprisingly, it doesn’t take much to become a successful organic aquaponic farmer, just fish, worms, gravity and manure. Well, that and a ton of creativity and ingenuity.
Aquaponics is the art of raising fish to fertilize plants, which clean the water that is re-circulated back to the fish. When the freshwater, perennial spring that runs right through the property was found to contain E. coli, Glenn rushed off to the Big Island and then to Australia to learn from the leading aquaculturists in commercial agriculture.
In a nutshell, here’s how it all works. The stream feeds his fishpond where he raises tilapia. E. coli is only carried by warm-blooded creatures and since fish are cold blooded, problem solved. Some of the fish were taken and put into large drums at the top of Glenn’s gently sloped, 8,000 square-foot growing area. Nutrient-laden water from the “fish tank” flows by gravity down to a row of four-foot by four-foot, elevated growing bins. The bins are filled with black cinders or rocks and a wide variety of vegetables in each. A simple valve allows the water to ebb and flow, 24-hours-a-day, watering the plants from the bottom as well as filtering the water. The water flows all the way downhill to a sump pump, which sends it back to the fish tank.
Glenn says his veggies are so happy, they fruit within two weeks to a month, yielding over $8,000 in certified organic vegetable a month. But he has a dirty little secret to his success: Perionyx excavatus, AKA Indian Blue worms. Keeping with his model of permaculture, and reducing waste, Olomana Gardens is not just a vegetable farm, but also a worm farm, as worms are an integral part of the breaking down and reusing of waste products.
Like any traditional farm, Glenn raises chickens, goats, rabbits, ducks and keeps horses and dogs. But unlike traditional farms, there are no flies and very little odor in his facilities. Why? Because of the worms. Glenn farms his Blue worms in his horse stable and under the chicken coops. The manure is processed by the worms and produces the best organic fertilizer. The farm harvests the worm poop, called vermicast, weekly. They form little pellets with the moist, fresh castings and let them dry out, then plant a seed in each pellet. With a little water, the seeds germinate within 48 hours and are planted directly in the aquaponic bins. As the pellet moistens, worm eggs in the pellet hatch and take up residence in the aquaponic bins, feeding on the fish poop and leaving their own black gold behind.
It’s a beautiful system, one that Olomana Gardens is proud to teach to students and interns that help work the organic farm. And of course, just about everything on the farm is for sale: worm poop, fish, chickens, bullfrogs, ducks, eggs, papayas and, oh yeah, handpicked vegetables.