Deep in the back of Windward Community College, sits an aquaponics research facility and agriculture classroom. The field is dotted with water tanks and plant beds filled with lush produce.

“Most of our energy, most of our food is imported. And we’re running out of places to grow food. And that’s why this work is being done because we don’t require soil,” said Clyde Tamaru, extension specialist for the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

Aquaponics is a combination of growing plants in water and raising aquatic animals like fish. Each helps the other survive and thrive.

Tamaru and his students will be joining about 80 UH delegates at this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. They’re replicating an aquaponics system right on the National Mall to educate 1.5 million visitors who are expected to attend the annual festival.

Tamaru is counting on his students to demonstrate how to grow their own food with little effort.

“You can use aquaponics in the city, you can use it in the country, you could use it, as long as you have some sun,” said UH Mānoa Hawaiian studies graduate student Leinaʻala Bright.

The system funnels the old fish water that contains nutrient-filled fish waste, from the water tanks to the plants.

“So we’re recycling the nutrient rich water to plants. The plants actually will take up the nutrients, and by the time it (the water) goes back to the fish tank, we have clean water,” Tamaru said.

The recycled water means the plants need significantly less water to survive. In fact, aquaponics uses only 5 percent of the water normally needed to grow comparable produce.

“Basically, the reason I do aquaponics is because there are no weeds, you’re really not bending over to get to the ground and the growth rate is very much accelerated,” UH Mānoa Hawaiian studies student Ilima Ho-Lastimosa said.

Ho-Lastimosa is the program director of God’s Country in Waimānalo, where she teaches the community how to grow simple, organic food in their backyards at a one-time cost of about $300.

“We definitely can grow and eat our own food. All we’ve got to do is choose to. Food sovereignty is the biggest and most powerful thing you can have for yourself and your family,” Ho-Lastimosa said.

Smithsonian Folklife Festival

The University of Hawaiʻi will be among 20 public land-grant universities to be featured in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. from June 27 to July 8, 2012.

The festival celebrates the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Morrill Act, which paved the way for higher education for rural and working class Americans.

The University of Hawaiʻi exhibits will feature traditional Hawaiian health and healing practices, a mini taro patch, non-instrument navigation, medicinal herb and organic farming and much more. Hawaiʻi Community College’s halau Unukupukupu and the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Tuahine Troup will also perform.

See more on the University of Hawaiʻi’s Smithsonian experience.