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Today, we’re excited to share an interview with Gantt Charping, a manager at Waihe’e Valley Plantation, a mixed soil and hydroponic farm on the island of Maui. Gantt’s background in conservation led him to a career in sustainable agriculture, which he now practices in beautiful Hawaii. In this interview, we discussed his journey to become a hydroponic grower, his advice for young farmers, and why it’s so crucial to build a community of support around your operation.

To start, tell me the story of Waihe’e Valley Plantation. How did the farm get started? Was hydroponics always a part of the operation?

The farm has been here for more than twenty years, but it didn’t have any hydroponic systems until about five years ago. That was when they added a tomato and vine crops greenhouse. I was brought on board about a year ago because the owners wanted to expand their hydroponic focus.

Hawaii is famous for its rich farmland. Why is there such a growing interest in hydroponics here?

It actually surprises many people to learn that Hawaii imports 85-90% percent of our food. Food insecurity is actually a major issue. There’s a number of reasons for that, but a big one is constraints on access to fresh water, and hydroponics is a great solution for that.

Even though importing food is the reality, there’s still a huge desire from consumers to purchase and eat locally, which hydroponics excels at. People are excited to support any agricultural approach that allows local food to be grown sustainably.

How did you come to get involved?

I’ve been in and around the industry for ages. I’d been consulting for the owners here for a while, but they pitched me on the idea of me coming on full time to help them build a leafy green greenhouse utilizing NFT. I liked the vision and the new challenge so I signed up.

How did you gain your own expertise in CEA?

Years ago I was working in conservation right here in Hawaii. I’d get dropped off by a helicopter in the jungle and spend two weeks tracking endangered birds. I felt an enormous frustration that I was working my butt off to save a single species, but the main culprit was human encroachment on the environment. That led to my interest in agriculture. I see sustainable agriculture as a key part of conservation.

So I started studying. Got a masters in environmental philosophy. From there I started an aquaponics business where I helped farmers design and set up systems. It was really rewarding, and that led me into years of working directly as a hydroponic grower and manager.

What is it like to work with AmHydro?

I’ve been in the CEA sector for years now, and AmHydro is hands down the best for NFT. I think everyone knows that. 

Don’t quote me on this, but for a past job I had to use a [redacted] system, and it was a huge downgrade. AmHydro systems just have so much more thought put into the design. There’s little details you really notice. I’ve always been blown away by the customer service too. My rep Rudy is the man. I got help planning my order, making adjustments, and the educational content is really top notch.

What are some of the biggest challenges that hydroponics needs to overcome to become more widespread?

A big one is obviously financial restraints. Hydroponic equipment requires a lot of upfront investment, and as we’ve seen in areas like indoor vertical, it’s not guaranteed that every technology will prove to be profitable.

There’s also just the aspect of branding and creating a value chain around hydroponics. In Hawaii, I have no problem finding customers who trust me and who want to support local. In less community-centric markets we need to get more people to understand the value of hydroponics. We’re not organic, so we can’t use that label, but can we build excitement around the idea of “hydroponic” itself? After all, we’re probably growing the cleanest food in the world.

Related to that, I still sometimes see the baseless stigma that hydroponic food doesn’t taste as good. There’s room for education there. I would really love to see education paired with some sort of industry-wide agreement on a hydroponic label that raises the profile of what everyone is doing.

What does your business model look like? How did you identify your market and reach your current customers?

I do spend a lot of time on sales, and my efforts are a reflection of my value system. Here in Hawaii, I don’t just want to feed tourists. Nothing against tourists, but I really want to grow food for people I see every day. But it’s not necessarily viable to only focus on that.

So 70% of my produce goes to high end restaurants that both locals and tourists patronize. 20% goes on shelves at local markets and grocery stores. And 10% is reserved for discounted sales directly to locals, or it gets donated to hubs that share food with the homeless.

For people just getting started, that might not make as much sense. You can’t diversify too much off the bat, you need to find a core business model. But at the same time, if you get the community behind you, they’ll help support you.

What’s some advice you would share with new growers – or people who are inspired by your story and interested in starting a farm of their own?

First of all, you’re going to make mistakes, but I really want to emphasize, if you’ve invested in your community, they’ll invest in you. Make community outreach part of your plan. 

People care about the why of what you’re growing as much as the what, and you can add value in many ways. For example, of course, if you wash your lettuce you can charge more. But people are also willing to pay more for intangibles, like if they trust you and see what you’re doing for the community.

Second, at least in Hawaii, agritourism and education is huge. People love to see how food is grown. If you have a community farm, then letting people come in and see it is a great way to connect, let people know what you’re doing.

Finally, I would really encourage young farmers to think seriously about vertical integration. If you can grow basil really well, but can’t find a market, then start a pesto company. Rent a commercial kitchen. Sell it at a farmers market. Move into stores. Big companies do this and you can too.


Thank you so much for your time. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?

I had someone early on in my life tell me that I’d never make money farming and I should give up on that dream. It really stuck with me. I was inspired to feed people, but felt like i had to face the facts. The image of a farmer isn’t exactly flush with cash. 

But, as it turns out, I’ve made a really comfortable niche for myself in agriculture, and I believe this industry has room for a lot more young entrepreneurs who are passionate about feeding their communities.

If you’re interested in visiting the farm, check out to learn more about their tours!

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