Hi Ashly, it’s so nice to be able to speak with you. For the past couple of years, you’ve overseen the hydroponic facility at Grand Hyatt Kauai. How did you come to get involved with hydroponics and end up in this role?
Before I worked here, I managed the conservation nursery for National Tropical Botanical Gardens. One of our volunteers was the woman who started the hydroponic program at the hotel. She was always talking about how cool her job was, and of course it wasn’t long before I had to come see it for myself. Of course, it was amazing.
I started taking my interns on field trips to see the facility. It was (and is) just a beautiful, clean, pristine, operation. The hydroponic technology is so aesthetically pleasing, and the output is incredible! The interns I was working with at the botanical garden would come from all around the world to learn about rare native Hawaiian plants, how to propagate them and care for them. So from a growers standpoint, hydro is like the pinnacle of horticultural technology; so clean, so much food out of such a small area. The facility is on a converted tennis court and almost blends into the property. It’s a stunning property, but the farm is not an eyesore.
Eventually, a few years ago, she let me know that she was moving. Of course, I immediately told her that I wanted the job! I hadn’t ever grown with hydroponics commercially before, but it was so intuitive. I really fell in love with it.
Tell me a bit more about the operation itself.
What are you growing there?
I now grow the majority of lettuce for the restaurants at the hotel and for the staff cafeteria. You might not know this, but 97% of food in Hawaii is imported. Anything we can do to offset the need for produce year round makes a big difference. For the owners of this hotel, the hydroponic farm on site was originally just a pet project. But it’s paid for itself many times over by now.
We offer tours a couple times every week, and the guests love it. Of course it’s a good advertisement for the hotel, but it also gets people thinking about their own carbon footprint, and systemic environmental issues.
You say this was your first time working with hydroponics at a commercial scale. Did you have any hydroponic experience before this? And how was it learning about this new angle of horticulture?
Yes, I have worked with hydroponics and aeroponics at various botanical gardens before. But that was mostly for propagation, not for crop production.
I actually ended up getting hired shortly before the pandemic. Because of travel and quarantine restrictions, the hotel almost entirely shut down, but thankfully, I was able to keep my job as part of a skeleton staff. Because we weren’t producing nearly the same volume of food, I got to use that time to really dive into the science of hydroponics and play around with the system. I grew tomatoes, basil, cilantro, parsley, collard greens, arugula, shiso, mustard greens, and more. You should have seen it. It was gorgeous in here. I even did some propagation for our landscape department. Using oasis grow cubes I did 4,000 cuttings for everything from bedding plants to gardenias and hibiscus.
Was there much of a learning curve to get the food production up to scale?
I don’t want to sound like I have a huge ego, but I had been working in horticulture for 25 years. My previous jobs had been learning to cultivate the rarest plants in the world. Compared to this, growing lettuce was a cakewalk.
The stress level was so much lower. The technology really does so much for you. Not to mention how much easier labor is. Having gardened all my life it was such a relief to not have to dig double beds or bend over to pull weeds.
I have definitely still learned a lot about how to optimize the operation, but I can’t speak highly enough about the technology and the AmHydro system.
Speaking of AmHydro, what has your experience been like working with AmHydro over the last few years?
Y’all are really amazing. In fact, whenever I offer tours for guests, I’m always name dropping AmHydro. I, of course, was not involved with building the system, but even coming in to this role years after it was set up, I know that I can reach out for help with anything. I really appreciate that.
Oh, I also love your website. There’s just so much rich information on there.
I’m definitely a fan of AmHydro.
The Hawaiian islands are generally considered to be really fertile, with rich soil and the ability to grow year-round. What are the advantages to growing hydroponically even with so many positives already in the natural environment?
This is a great question, and I’m so glad I can talk about this for a moment. Because you’re right. In fact, Kauai specifically is “The Garden Island.” There’s a ton of agricultural land. However, with a year-round growing climate, there’s a lot of downsides too. There’s no fallow period; no break. Weeds also flourish year round. For a farmer doing food production, it’s hard, demanding, physical work. That’s why you actually see a lot of this rich agricultural land just sitting empty. For lease.
So there’s a lot of advantages to hydroponics. Hydroponics – especially with all the new automations and remote monitoring technology coming out – lets you walk away. There are also the benefits of water and resource conservation. I single handedly grow 300-500 pounds of produce a week, and it’s functionally organic. At the botanical garden I was using pesticides every single day. But here I don’t have to use any chemicals.
Thank you so much for your time Ashly, it was a pleasure to speak with you!
Likewise, thank you to AmHydro for all your support!