At Springworks Farm in Lisbon, there are no mooing cows or bleating sheep. Visitors can hear only the bubbling sound of water moving between fish tanks and beds of lettuce. Trevor Kenkel started this aquaponics operation in 2014 during his first year at Bowdoin College.
“It’s a system in which the fish produce fertilizer for the plants, which allows them to grow and clean the water for the fish,” says Kenkel. “It’s essentially a symbiotic relationship. And for us, we’re really just stewards of an ecosystem.”
Springworks Farm produces almost one million heads of lettuce and 20,000 pounds of tilapia every year. That’s because, unlike most conventional farms, it can operate year-round. In fact, these systems are the most cost-effective after the fall harvest.
Theo Willis is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Southern Maine, where he teaches aquaculture and runs the school’s aquaponics system. He says “aquaponics is a losing proposition in summer” but the growing season never ends.
“There is no way, with an aquatic system, you can keep up with what someone can do under natural light in a farm field during the summer,” says Willis. “But starting in about November, the tables turn. We can grow pretty much whatever we want from November to May when nobody’s got anything in the field.”
Year-round farming, Willis says, means year-rounds jobs for growers, opening new possibilities for some high school students across the state who have already explored aquaponics systems in their classrooms.