Tropical Trail: Visit the Food Forest and Yummy Hydroponics of Wai Koa Plantation

Photos by Ryan Benoit

The recent obsession with our tangerine tree got us to thinking about all the farmland wisdom we’ve received over the last year. In particular, we’ve been reliving our visit to the edible Shangri-La that is Kauai Fresh Farms.

Located on the 500-acre Wai Koa Plantation on Kauai’s North Shore, the farm specializes in hydroponically grown produce — that is, crops cultivated without soil. They include cucumbers, basil, 13 gorgeous varieties of lettuce and vine-ripened tomatoes that are grown, with the help of greenhouses, in a climate known for antagonizing them.

Locally grown crops are a boon to an island weighed down by imports. Restaurants (e.g. Merriman’s), hotels (e.g. the St. Regis in Princeville), markets (e.g. Papaya’s Natural Foods in Kapa’a) and food trucks across Kauai serve the farm’s produce.

The land was once occupied by a sugar plantation and by the Guava Kai orchard. Founded in 2006 in the town of Kilauea, Wai Koa Plantation is owned by Bill Porter, founder of ETrade, and his wife Joan. In addition to the farm, here you will find the tropical pageantry of the Stone Dam, catch-and-release ponds, a dog park and the five-mile Wai Koa trail loop for biking and walking, all open to the public. There’s also a mahogany hardwood plantation, organic orchard, community garden and permaculture food forest.

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Along the Wai Koa loop, the Malama Community Garden grows crops like papaya, kale, taro, mint, squash and rosemary on a parcel of land donated by the plantation.

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Ornamental ti plants flank the entrance to the community garden, which also receives water donated by the plantation. Gardeners (selected by lottery) are required to maintain their plots and grow crops that are organic.

General manager Markeeta Smith was kind enough to give us a multisensory tour. Over the course of two hours we pretty much experienced all four seasons — from breezy chills to driving rain to agreeable warmth to sweaty, strip-off-the-raincoat-I-was-wearing-two-minutes-ago heat. And then we saw our first bona fide Hawaiian rainbow!

You can take the tour too by making reservations here. In the meantime, hop aboard the tram and let’s go… —TH

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All aboard the tram! Towering above us are ironwood trees.

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Cardboard is used as a weed inhibitor on the slope leading down into the food forest (right). We hopped off the tram in the pouring rain to explore.

 

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The Kalihiwai Permaculture Food Forest is a magical, magical place. Crops include yacon, papaya, breadfruit, lemongrass, squash and sweet potato. Vetiver keeps erosion at bay.

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The rain didn’t baaah-ther these guys!

 

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First stop, the 3.5-acre organic fruit orchard. Markeeta (left) is experimenting with 13 varieties of avocados. “It’s so wet here, and avocados hate wet,” she says. “We’re trying to see which variety of avocados will produce.” Varieties include Yamagata and Sharwil.

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And then we laid eyes on this beaut, a…

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…Variegated lemon!

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Breadfruit, a starchy staple.

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Munching on kadota figs.

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The Honduran mahogany hardwood tree farm is the largest of its kind in the U.S., growing over 82,000 trees.

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Over 400 solar panels help to power the plantation. Oh, and do you see the rainbow? The Hawaiian word for it is anuenue.

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The apple banana orchard. The plants grow in clusters, thanks to the keikis (babies) the mature trees produce before they flower, fruit and die.

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Feeding the koi.

Nymphaea nouchali

Nymphaea nouchali.

Spathoglottis 'Purple Grape' orchid

Spathoglottis ‘Purple Grape’ orchid.

Spathoglottis 'Purple Grape' orchid

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Now up to the greenhouses…

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The hydroponic crops are grown in coco coir, an inert, moisture-holding medium made of coconut husks.

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Markeeta shows off Kauai Fresh Farms’ butter lettuce. The lettuce grows in cycles lasting 4 to 6 weeks. (Growing is slower in the winter.)

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Water and nutrients are being constantly fed and recycled through pumpers. Temperature is regulated in the greenhouse, and plants are protected from burning.

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Other crops include red leaf and green leaf romaine lettuce, cucumber, basil and…

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Beefsteak tomatoes. Susceptible to humidity-loving powdery mildew, tomatoes are notoriously difficult to grow in tropical climates.

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Greenhouses invite many of the same problems you’ll find outside, for example, pests like spider mites, broad mites, and thrips. “Any pest you get outside, you get inside,” Markeeta tells us. “It’s just that inside, they go, ‘Hey I’ve got a little condo, I’m going to hang out in here.'” But a perk to growing indoors is that the crop is protected from the region’s 100 inches of yearly rain, which can batter an outdoor bed of lettuce.

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The greenhouses are Food Safety Certified, thanks to the farms’ ultra-sanitary MO: team members wear booties over their shoes, feet must by wiped on bleach mats to kill bugs, and clippers must be sanitized if moving between houses.

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Wai Koa Loop, Stone Dam

A view of the historic Stone Dam, which was first opened in 1881.

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Plants like ti, hala and heliconia invigorate the landscape.

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A newly built dog parks marks the exit and entrance to the Wai Koa Plantation, home to Kauai Fresh Farms, hiking and biking trails, a community garden and a food forest.

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The Wai Koa Loop makes a nice five-mile jog through the gentle terrain of the Wai Koa plantation.