A few years ago, Jeni and Doug Blackburn were looking for a new business venture to embark upon following Doug’s retirement. After perusing several different business ideas, Doug began researching greenhouses, hydroponics and aquaponics. Jeni explains that as the couple dug deeper into aquaponics, they realized that they had found their business.
“We really liked the idea. It’s a sustainable way of doing farming,” says Jeni, co-owner and farmer at Fresh Harvest Farm, in Richwood, Ohio. “We are re-circulating water, not adding chemicals, and the fish eating and breathing excrete ammonia, which is a natural chemical. The good bacteria creates wonderful nutrition for our plants naturally.”
In July 2011, the couple started building a greenhouse, and a few months later in November they stocked their tank with fish and began growing food. By February, Fresh Harvest Farm took part in its first harvest.
Using a 1,400 gallon fish tank, the aquaponic startup raises lake perch, which is native to Ohio. “Because of the diversity in climates, a lot of people use tilapia,” Jeni explains. “Tilapia like warm water, and with the winter, we would have to keep our water temperature pretty high, which could be costly. So, we chose to do lake perch, which are native to Ohio and don’t require overly warm water temperature.”
In their four-foot grow troughs they grow seven varieties of lettuce, swiss chard, celery, zucchini, cucumbers, Lebanese cucumbers, peppers, basil, thyme, oregano, parsley, mint and green beans. They ward off pests that sneak into the greenhouse with beneficial insects and do not use any pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides.
When the Blackburns started on their aquaponic endeavor, they attended a four-day workshop hosted by Friendly Aquaponics of Hawaii and Green Acres Aquaponics of Florida. Friendly Aquaponics provided the Blackburns and other attendees with a system design plan that the couple implemented on their farm.
To get things going the couple made an initial investment of $65,000 in building the system on their farm. Within its first year of operation, Fresh Harvest Farm has sold its produce at summer farmers markets and has established accounts with area restaurants. In addition, it started what the couple calls a Lettuce Club – a sort of scaled back version of a typical CSA. For $5 a week or $20 a month, Lettuce Club members receive two heads of lettuce, with varieties that can include Butterhead, Romaine, Red Romaine, Salad Bowl, Prizehead and Heirloom.
Though the aquaponic startup has had a successful first year, it didn’t come without a few minor challenges. Jeni explains that because their farm is about an hour from Columbus, Ohio (the biggest metropolitan area within driving distance), they aren’t exactly around the corner from their customers. But, Blackburn has made it work thus far, dropping off deliveries to restaurants in Columbus on the way to her day job.
Another challenge Fresh Harvest Farm has faced in its first year was simply learning about their fish: what would make them happy, what would make them eat or stop eating, etc? “If we saw that plants are slowing down on growth, we learned that the fish weren’t eating,” Jeni says. “You have to be very aware of what’s going on [in the aquaponic system] every day and take care of it.”
This coming year, the couple plans on adding another greenhouse for growing space and building a seed room in their barn next to the greenhouse. In addition, Blackburn says that her husband’s sights are set on more greenhouses, which the couple hopes will help to grow their business. “This summer we will be able to offer more items on a weekly basis as part of the Lettuce Club, to be more of a traditional CSA,” Blackburn says. “The future of our farm looks bigger. We cannot supply the demand we have.”
“We’re constantly making mistakes, but we are constantly learning. Doing aquaponics in today’s world with our modern technology means that there’s always something that we’re learning,” explains Blackburn. “I’m just really happy to see where we are. We don’t want to be a multi-million dollar farm. We want to be a farm that grows healthy, quality produce, growing in a sustainable way and good stewards of our planet.”