It’s that time of year: The farmers who grow our food can’t wait to get outside on a daily basis, feel the warmth of the sun, dig in the nutrient-rich soil and plant their first crops.
And then there are those who can’t wait to get outside because they’ve been inside all winter, where it’s balmy and 70-something degrees, growing Swiss chard, pea shoots, salad greens, herbs and other produce.
“It’s always spring in here,’’ says Mark Doherty, the founder of Aqua Vita Farms, an aquaponic farm launched in 2011.
For the uninitiated, aquaponics is a sustainable system of food production that combines aquaculture (raising fish in tanks) with hydroponics (growing plants in water) in an interactive indoor environment. The wastewater from the fish tanks is used to fertilize the plants and the plants, in turn, clean the water. The purified water is then circulated back to the fish.
At Aqua Vita, row upon row of grow beds are stacked in tiered systems resembling bunk beds in a 13,000 square foot building that was once part of the Oneida Limited manufacturing facility in Sherrill.
The advantages of aquaponic growing are many, Doherty says: It uses far less energy and far less water than traditional agriculture. The food is fresh, tasty and pesticide free, designed to be used in surrounding communities, so it doesn’t travel far.
Thanks to aquaponic growers, even if it’s snowing outside – and the first of our local tomatoes are still months away – you can enjoy fresh, local greens in your salad bowl.
The greens on plate or on your sandwich at Turning Stone Resort and Casino and restaurants like Circa in Cazenovia this time of year are probably from Aqua Vita Farms. Aqua Vita's tilapia, meanwhile, has been featured on the menu at The Tailor and the Cook, in Utica.
The “clamshell’’ containers of Boston lettuce you’ve seen at stores such as Wegmans, Tops and the Syracuse Real-Food Co-Op? Those are from Ithaca’s Finger Lakes Fresh Food Hub. The supple spring mix and bright butterhead lettuce that may have caught your eye at the Central New York Regional Market this winter is probably from Main Street Farms, Homer, or Refresh Farms, East Syracuse.
Jamie O’Hern, who owns Refresh Farms and runs the emerging venture with help from family and friends, harvests her lettuce early each Saturday morning and brings it to the market. She usually sells out before noon.
“It doesn’t get any fresher than that,’’ O’Hern says. “The taste is amazing.’’
Six ounces of lettuce packed in an eco-friendly bag with the root ball still attached costs $3. Stored properly, it will last for almost a week. The whole fish on ice at her market stall is equally fresh: That’s the tilapia raised in tanks as part of the aquaponic process. The tilapia sells for $5 a pound.
“Most people have never seen what tilapia really looks like,’’ O’Hern says.
It’s pretty new to O’Hern, too. Tilapia is firm fleshed, mild flavored and versatile – it can be adapted to many styles of cooking. The tilapia raised in aquaponics reach full maturity (one and a half to two pounds) in about a year.
O’Hern got her introduction to aquaponics at Sunset Hydroponics and Home Brewing in Syracuse, where she worked as a manager. She grew tomatoes, basil and lettuce in the basement of her family’s house in Syracuse before moving to a small space in the building occupied by Syracuse Tile and Marble in East Syracuse.
She says with a smile that she learned how to fillet fish by watching a YouTube video. She recommends that customers bake the tilapia whole. Clean and scale the fish, slit it in several spots and marinate it for a short time in a vinaigrette dressing made with oil, vinegar and mustard. Stuff the cavity of the tilapia with herbs and bake it in a sealed foil pouch (or parchment paper) until the fish flakes easily with a fork – about 18 to 20 minutes in a 400 degree oven.
O’Hern, who also works part-time as a server at Ironwood Pizza in Manlius, has high hopes for the future of aquaponic farming – and for Refresh Farms.
She would like to build a greenhouse aquaponic system to reduce the use of artificial lighting and add solar panels to the building to help reduce electrical expenses. She also would like to add more grow beds in order to supply restaurants with fresh produce. She also would like to help restaurants grow their own food.
“I don’t have it all figured out,’’ she says, “I’m learning a lot as we go, by trial and error.
“I do think this is a lot better way to grow food. We need to rethink how we farm. This is more sustainable.’’
Note: There are several aquaponic farms of varying sizes in Central New York and the Finger Lakes. Most welcome visitors and offer education programs. Some, like Aqua Vita Farms, offer aquaponics training and consulting. Call or email to inquire about visitor programs and rates.
Do you know of an aquaponic grower not included here? Please leave details in a comment (below) so I can add them. Thank you!
Aqua Vita Farms, Sherrill
Phone: 315-941-3535; email, firstname.lastname@example.org
Products: Lettuce and other salad greens; Swiss chard, sorrel; basil and other herbs; pea shoots; tilapia
Retail: Oneida County Public Market; Westmoreland Summer and Winter Farmers Markets; Arnie’s Produce and Craig’s Kegs, Oneida.
Refresh Farms, East Syracuse
Products: Butterhead lettuce, green and red romaine, basil, pac choi; tilapia
Phone: 315-447-4315; email, email@example.com
Retail: Central New York Regional Market (Saturdays)
Products: Lettuces, spring mix, Swiss chard, kale, herbs, etc.
Phone: 607-218-2101; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Retail: Syracuse Real Food Cooperative, Natur-Tyme, Green Planet Grocery, Central New York Regional Market and other locations.
Finger Lakes Fresh, Ithaca
Products: Boston lettuce, romaine, arugula, baby pac choi, salad bouquet
Phone: 607-347-6767; email: email@example.com
Retail: Wegmans, Price Chopper, Tops, Syracuse Real Food Cooperative, Green Planet Grocery