Producing Sustainable Greens from the Ark in Northern Vermont
The Eco-Ark at Finn and Roots in Bakersfield, Vermont doesn’t float, but it does carry an impressive array and quantity of edible plants that would have made Noah proud. Part greenhouse and part fish house, the Eco-Ark is surprisingly small given the amount of produce grown. Finn and Roots is a commercial-scale aquaponics farm located about 17 miles south of the Canadian border in northern Vermont. They grow vegetables year-round and produce tender greens even in the clutches of northern Vermont’s winters.
“It’s lovely in here in the winter,” says president and operator Holly Counter-Beaver about the glassed-in greenhouse, custom-built to house the vegetable operation. “On a sunny day it can be warm and humid, even in February. It’s a welcome change from the dry air in the house and the frigid temperatures outside.”
The scenery is stunning, located near the Cold Hollow Mountains in one of a myriad of small valleys in northwest Vermont. A small orchard flanks the Eco-Ark greenhouse, with a managed woodlot gently sloping away from the orchard and Ark to a small stream a quarter mile into the woods.
Finn and Roots uses aquaponics, a method of high-density agriculture that combines aquaculture and hydroponics. Aquaculture, the growing of food in water, aka water-farming, is usually associated with large salmon farms in the ocean or oyster shellfish operations along the coast. However, aquaculture is also practiced inland in land-locked states all over the United States.
Inland or land-based aquaculture operators grow fish, shrimp, and algae in a wide array of production systems, from home-made to high volume commercial systems that cost millions of dollars to install. Including Finn and Roots, Vermont has seven aquaculture producers, most operating small, custom-built systems.
Hydroponics is the practice of growing plants without soil. Certain plants, like leafy greens and fruiting vegetables, for example cucumbers, grow extremely well in just water. Hydroponics uses floating rafts or non-soil media to hold plants whose roots are immersed in nutrient rich water. The plants grow at astounding rates, often in a greenhouse structure with supplemental artificial lighting.
Aquaponics puts these two growing systems together. At Finn and Roots, freshwater fish culture is combined with a large number of grow tables to make an indoor, hi-tech farm. The fish provide nutrients and one potential sales product, and the plants use the nutrients, clean the water for the fish, and provide a second sales product.
“The fish and plants have a symbiosis,” Counter-Beaver says, while looking over one of the 4500-gallon tanks in the Eco-Ark that is home to over two hundred tilapia each. Tilapia are a tropical fish from northern Africa that has been used for aquaculture for thousands of years.
“We use our tilapia to run a decoupled aquaponic system,” says Counter-Beaver. “That means we add water from the fish tanks to the grow tables a little at a time to keep the conditions just right for our leafy greens.”
The 6,000-square-foot facility uses over 60 shallow water tables to grow more than 600 heads of lettuce a week. They also grow cucumbers, bell peppers, and micro-greens, and soon, tomatoes, as well.
“The tilapia don’t eat that much,” she says, as a thick layer of cream-colored tilapia rise up from the tea-colored water to stare inquisitively at their caretaker, hopeful that feeding time has come early. “Some places sell their fish but we don’t.”
Counter-Beaver says that her four 4500-gallon tanks are well-balanced with the right amount of space for fish and their nutrient production, which is more valuable to her than the revenue that might come from selling tilapia commercially.
“Tilapia get a bad rap,” Counter-Beaver says. Unfortunately, consumers don’t realize that locally grown tilapia are free from the chemicals and hormones often found in Chinese operations that have marred the reputation of this white-fleshed food fish.
“They’re generally not on the top of people’s buy list for fish,” she continues, “and where we’re located isn’t conducive to getting regular fish shipments out to market.”
“Processing is difficult in Vermont as well,” Counter-Beaver admits. “There aren’t any central locations I can send fish to for fileting, and our location makes transportation a challenge. So, we would have to do it in-house, and that would be expensive.”
In fact, processing is a problem all around the region. There’s a catch-22 between production volume and processing capacity. For a processor to make a living and justify the equipment, they would need a certain volume of plate-sized fish. Those are fish about 13 inches in length that can take upwards of two years to grow.
For aquaculture producers in the Lake Champlain basin to expand to meet that need, they would have to know that a processor was nearby and could take their fish when ready. Those are two difficult conditions to meet at the same time. Consequently, most aquaculture producers in Vermont concentrate on stocking-sized fish, about six inches in length, that take just a year to grow.
Finn and Roots sells their greens as whole heads and in mixed bags to Vermont grocers and restaurants between St. Albans, Burlington, and as far south as Shelburne. Winter is their best season as there are few locally-produced, delicate greens available after the first frost; however, Finn and Roots' produce is available year-round.
“We’re here because we wanted to contribute something tangible and meaningful to the communities around us, and I thought, what’s more meaningful than food,” says Counter-Beaver.
You can buy Finn and Roots products at Wood Meadow Market, Rail City Market, Healthy Living Markets, City Markets, Sweet Clover Market, and Shelburne Market.
To learn more about aquaculture in the Lake Champlain basin, contact the author Theodore Willis, Lake Champlain Sea Grant’s Aquaculture Education Specialist, at theodore.willis [at] uvm.edu.