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US (ME): Aquaponic grower secures $1.6M to expand greenhouse

Springworks, an aquaponic farm growing fresh, organically-certified lettuce, has secured $1.6M in capital to finance the creation and operation of a second, larger, and more efficiently designed greenhouse. The three-year old company’s current 6,000 sq ft greenhouse will be complemented by the new 8,000 sq ft facility, which is scheduled to be fully operational by summer of 2018. The Farm leverages the natural symbiotic relationship between its crops and the tilapia housed in tanks positioned next to the greenhouse. The waste from the fish provides an organic source of fertilizer for the plants, that, in turn, filters the water returned to the fish.

Springworks’ expansion will earn it the distinction as the largest aquaponic farm in New England. That growth has been driven by the facility’s success in implementing innovative principles to realize an enormous impact on both ecological sustainability and economic efficiency. The farm uses 90-95% less water than conventional soil-based agriculture. Additionally, the carefully coordinated placement of lettuce plants in Springworks greenhouses along with the farm’s year-round production cycle and optimized plant nutrition achieves a crops-per-acre increase of about 16 times that of a traditional farm’s yield.

The new facility represents the latest model in a series of experiments with aquaponics that the farm’s 22 year-old founder has been exploring since childhood. Trevor Kenkel was first drawn to the field when he noticed the degradation of the pristine creek he fly-fished in as a child in Montana. After learning that pollution from a nearby farm was responsible, Kenkel started investigating sustainable agriculture. That began a series of projects funded by summer jobs during Kenkel’s high school years. Those experiments culminated in a 2,000-gallon greenhouse system that supplied enough greens to not only feed his family, but also supply a local restaurant as well. The success of those ventures inspired Kenkel’s current academic focus as a junior at Bowdoin College, where he studies biology and economics.

Kenkel’s academic investigation of the aquaponic principles he put into practice allowed him to create a miniaturized version of the models he’s been perfecting for most of his life. The Springworks “Microfarm” ingeniously turns a ten-gallon tank into an aquarium-fitted aquaponics system with everything needed to grow fresh herbs from water exchanged with the aquarium’s fish. Microfarms have been purchased both as entertaining in-home herb gardens and as educational ecosystem models that are used in more than 45 schools in conjunction with its three complementary curriculums.

When asked about future plans for Springworks, Kenkel shares a vision that extends far beyond the local customers who’ve come to depend on the farm for year-round delivery of their fresh, organically-grown lettuce. He delivers that message with the characteristic mix of hard data and personal passion that inspired the investor funding that continues to grow his dream.

“Lettuce is a $3B a year industry, with over 97% of the product grown in, and shipped from, California and Arizona,” Kenkel shares. “The time is ripe to disrupt an agricultural system that no longer works for those who understand the critical need to shift to a more sustainable model for growing food. At Springworks, we look forward to continuing to explore the balance between biological systems and business needs that present the healthiest future for the communities we serve.”

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