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A promise of higher ag yields: Aquaponics offers new source of food

BY Lori Valigra

7/13/2015
Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Trevor Kenkel, president of Lisbon’s Springworks Farm, has more than $1 million invested in a greenhouse and surrounding property. In the greenhouse, plants on floats draw nourishment from fish waste.

The eclectic local foodie scene will soon get a new source of fresh vegetables from Maine greenhouses that use aquaponics, an indoor ecosystem where plants grow in large tubs of water and use waste from live fish as fertilizer.

Springworks Farm in Lisbon expects to start selling organic aquaponic lettuce this month and Fluid Farms LLC in Dresden plans to sell lettuce in about two months. Both aim to add other vegetables as they expand production. Island Aquaponics Food & Grocery, a startup agriculture venture on Long Island in Casco Bay, is raising greens and tilapia in a trial greenhouse and expects to expand into an 800-square-foot greenhouse.

“Aquaponics is an emerging industry,” says Trevor Kenkel, 20, a Bowdoin College rising sophomore who started Springworks in the spring of 2014 and is the company's president. At Bowdoin, he is studying biology and economics.

“We can control more aspects of the environment than a soil farmer, and we can get 12 crop rotations per year,” Kenkel says, noting that aquaponic farms can produce vegetables year-round. “We can distinguish ourselves by the quality of our product and the ability to deliver on a consistent basis.”

“You get a much higher yield per acre than a traditional farm, which needs about six acres for every one acre of aquaponic production,” says Jackson McLeod, co-owner and operator at Fluid Farms. McLeod and partner Tyler Gaudet had a 3,000-square-foot hoop house in North Yarmouth, but over the past year they have been moving to Dresden, where they relocated the hoop house and will add a 38,000-square-foot greenhouse — one of the state's largest — in stages.

“Aquaponics doesn't cost more,” McLeod adds. “There's an opportunity for a lower price point for organic products because it requires less labor.”

Companies are growing up around the aquaponics business, designing system equipment for it. Aquaculture Engineering Inc., based in Washington, plans to market a franchisable aquaponics system. Autonomic Labs Inc., an early-stage company, is building a wireless sensor system called the “autoabotanist” for monitoring farm conditions and issuing alerts to mobile devices if readings are abnormal.

At schools, the University of New England in Biddeford is ready to scale up its experimental aquaponics facility to eventually provide year-round fresh greens to the cafeteria. The University of Maine's Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research in Franklin is studying aquaponics for demonstration and business development. And middle-school youth at RSU 13's Alternative Education Program in 2010 established an aquaponics business called School of Roots that they run out of the Herring Gut Learning Center in Port Clyde.

Year-round fresh greens are just part of the story. About 98% of lettuce is grown in California and Arizona. While displacing some of those shipments will save on fuel and emissions for lettuce traveling to the East Coast, aquaponic systems also could help Californians grow more efficiently in drought conditions, Kenkel says.

Aquaponics uses about 90% less land and water than soil agriculture but potentially could generate three to four times more food, according to a report from Industry ARC, a Hamilton, N.Y., consulting and research company. It estimated that global sales for aquaponics could hit $1 billion by 2020, up from $180 million in 2013. The return on investment for aquaponic systems ranges from one to two years, depending on the farm's scale and the farmer's experience, the consultancy found.

Today's aquaponic farmers are applying modern technology to a technique first started by the Aztecs, who floated rafts of plants on water bodies so fish could fertilize them. Aquaponics saw a resurgence in the 1970s and 1980s when the New Alchemy Institute in Hatchville, Mass., and others advanced the technique.

Aquaponics differs from the better-known hydroponic farming, like the tomatoes from Madison-based Backyard Farms. Hydroponics requires adding chemical fertilizers to water to grow the plants, while aquaponics uses fertilizer from live fish, which typically are kept in separate containers. Water from the fish tanks is piped through the plant tanks to fertilize the plants, which in turn clean the water for return to the fish.

Fish excrete ammonia, which is turned into nitrite by bacteria in the aquaponic system. Different bacteria turn the nitrite into nitrate, also a common ingredient in soil fertilizers. Filters remove the fish excrement solids. The plants absorb the nitrate to grow.

“Aquaponics uses fish waste to cultivate an ecosystem similar to a creek,” says Kenkel, who at age 10 became interested in aquaponics and aquaculture, or fish farming. One day while fly fishing in a local glacier-fed creek in his home town of Kalispell, Mont., he noticed the fish had died. He did some research and linked the deaths to chemical runoff from a large farm upstream.

Seeing the dead fish piqued his interest in water issues, which in turn led to his interest in aquaponics. Kenkel says he's learned most of what he now knows about the farming method from Google searches. He built his first system in the eighth grade using money from summer jobs.

His parents pitched in, as lighting for the system was expensive. Kenkel says he grew most of the family's greens in the garage, but found he could cut lighting costs with an outdoor heated greenhouse.

“I tested a lot of variables that we now use in our commercial system here,” he says.

It's been a challenge to get capital and knowledge in aquaponics, Kenkel says. But one wouldn't know it driving up to the farm stand, stocked with fresh tomatoes and greens, and looking at the 6,000-square-foot greenhouse behind it.

Dingley Press, a commercial printer in Lisbon, had purchased the property for expansion, but instead leased it to a local farmer, who ran the farm stand for 17 years. Kenkel bought the land and farmhouse last year, but still buys produce from the farmer, Rick Belanger, who has another site.

“We're happy to have it,” Kenkel says of the farm stand, which diversifies his income stream. He also just bought 70 chicks to raise in a refurbished shed, and is selling an educational aquaponics kit called the MicroFarm for $199.

Kenkel started Springworks during a gap year in his schooling. He was recovering from two concussions he got in the same high school football game. The family moved from Montana to Gloucester, Mass., so he could get treated at Massachusetts General Hospital.

His father, who works in the financial services field, helped with the business plan and found six equity investors. Kenkel said his family owns a controlling interest in the company, but he declined to name the investors, saying only that they are interested in sustainable technology.

“The investors have been hands off,” he says. “We will need financial partners in the future, both financially and intellectually. The investors have been helpful so far. A lot of them are experienced in business and some of them are involved in technology, but not computer technology.”

To date, Kenkel, his parents and the financiers have invested about $1 million for the greenhouse, property, farm house, the aquaponics system and MicroFarm kit. He is using two acres of the 168 acres he owns. There are three employees and four interns.

In the greenhouse, Styrofoam rafts of plants float on long troughs filled with water. The rafts are in order of plant maturity, with the most ripe plants closest to the picking area. Most of the plants are various types of lettuce now, but he also grows mizuna, an Asian green that is peppery like arugula, as well as parsley, basil and more recently, bok choy.

In the adjoining 1,800-square-foot building, five 1,200-gallon tanks house a couple hundred tilapia and goldfish. Another 1,600-gallon tank collects solids from the fish waste that he plans to use later when he plants an orchard. In all, the aquaponics system has 26,000 gallons and can produce about a quarter million heads of leaf and Bibb lettuce annually.

Kenkel is focusing on wholesale sales, especially to restaurants between Bath and Lewiston. He also plans to sell in nearby farmers markets. And he's working toward getting good agricultural practices, or GAP, certification so he can sell to Hannaford supermarket.

Springworks already is organically certified by Organic Certifiers Inc. in California. It is working now with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association to get its produce certified.

Kenkel says the average person can't tell the difference in the taste of lettuce grown by aquaponics or hydroponics. But he realizes he has an educational task ahead of him, as aquaponics is a lesser known method of growing.

With his first crop ready for market, he's cleared land for a second, 6,000-square-foot greenhouse that he expects to produce greens by next spring.

Fluid Farms started in 2012 in North Yarmouth, but without room to expand, co-owners McLeod and Gaudet sought new space. They have moved their existing 3,000-square-foot heated hoop house to Dresden and plan to start selling greens within a couple months. At the same time, they are working to bring the first 15,000 square feet of their large greenhouse online by next spring and the entire greenhouse within two years, giving them total space of 41,000 square feet.

McLeod says Fluid Farms has managed startup costs by growing in stages and using sweat equity.

“We are seeking $200,000 from a variety of funders, including debt, equity and federal and state programs,” he says of getting the 15,000-square-foot greenhouse running. The original greenhouse was funded by a $9,500 Kickstarter campaign. The company has two employees.

“Our successes have come from learning from our failures. Reducing risk allows us to learn and remain agile,” McLeod says. “What is most important to us is that we are able to continue to innovate and push the model to produce what the market demands.

While in North Yarmouth, the farm sold wholesale through the Westbrook-based distributor Native Maine Produce & Specialty Foods and directly to restaurants, including Bonobo, Salt Exchange, Nosh and Flatbread.

While the North Yarmouth farm produced 400 pounds of tilapia over a season and 500 heads of lettuce weekly, McLeod says it was a proof-of-concept farm to see if the business was economically viable.

Fluid Farms was selling about $4,500 a month for five months for a total of $22,500 last year. Going forward with the new greenhouses, it plans to sell $120,000 in 2015 and an unspecified amount with the next greenhouse phase-in, though he expects at that stage the company could be selling $400,000 worth of lettuce alone.

In the new facility, the farm is growing hybrid striped bass instead of tilapia. McLeod says the farm will use wholesale distributors near-term, but it would like to get into farmers markets and institutional markets like colleges. Like Springworks, it also is working for MOFGA certification, and was being inspected July 10.

As for the taste of the lettuce, he says, “The produce is the same. The production style is different. We're growing the same seeds.”

Gaudet of Fluid Farms is consulting with the University of New England's pilot aquaponics project, which is on the verge of scaling up, says Jeri Fox, who is associate professor and coordinator for UNE Biddeford's Aquaculture and Aquarium Sciences Program.

While UNE has a fish tank and a plant tank with lettuce, basil and pole beans, it hopes to build a vertical aquaponics farm on the side of a 30-foot wall. Another pilot study is using solar energy to pump water for the fish and aerate the tank.

“This is part of the Edible Campus Initiative,” Fox says. “We'll use marginal space to produce food. We can raise lettuce inside all seasons, so we can keep production going that could continually stock the salad bar.”

It's all about space, she says, adding, “You can grow anywhere.”