Maine farm that uses fish poop to grow crops year-round is expanding

"We always need a back-up plan because nothing can go wrong"

A Lisbon farm plans to add 500,ooo square feet of greenhouse operations over the next six years and defy doubters who don’t believe its style of year-round growing, which uses fish waste to fertilize greens, can be scaled into a large commercial operation.

Springworks Farm, the largest aquaponics farm in Maine and one of the largest in the United States, aims to be a local organic alternative to lettuce and other greens trucked from California and Arizona to the East Coast.

It already produces one million heads of lettuce and up to 60,000 pounds of tilapia each year, and plans to have its third greenhouse completed in May. There are people that doubt that the aquaponics method of growing can be expanded greatly. It requires expensive infrastructure investments and relies on a complex indoor ecosystem of fish and plants that live in a delicate balance of water chemistry, temperature, light and oxygen. Consumers unfamiliar with it may question why it is priced a bit higher than conventional lettuce.

But Trevor Kenkel, founder and president of Springworks, said the farm’s ambitious plan can be achieved with a careful balance of customer and business growth. The farm raised $1.6 million from investors to build a second greenhouse in 2018.

“We have been very intentional about matching our growth plan with the maturity of the business,” Kenkel, 26, said. “I think that’s where other folks made mistakes, in scaling before they actually figured out the business.”

Kate Holcomb, director of Canopy Farms in Brunswick, agreed. Her 3,000-square-foot rooftop aquaponics operation sells its fish and greens to partners, including the Tao Yuan restaurant and soon-to-be-opened Zaoze Cafe and Market, both in Brunswick. She said having those guaranteed buyers is a major advantage for Canopy.

“The biggest thing is how you take something with tanks and fish and plants and grow something that’s going to make enough money to cover your costs and then figure out how to expand,” Theo Willis, associate adjunct researcher at the University of Maine, said. The university has a small aquaponics operation for teaching students.

Holcomb said it’s important to have backup systems and to plan for potentially catastrophic events like power outages, because fish without aeration can die within an hour. “If something goes wrong, it can go really wrong,” she said. “It is challenging when you’re balancing multiple living systems.”

Springworks and Canopy Farms are the only two aquaponics farms in the state registered with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, down from a handful of aquaponics farms a few years ago.

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