Young company plans Maine’s first commercial-scale aquaponics facility in North Yarmouth

Posted April 07, 2013, at 3:06 p.m.
Last modified April 07, 2013, at 7:43 p.m.

NORTH YARMOUTH, Maine — Fluid Farms is taking its development of aquaponics — the emerging practice of combining fish tanks with water-based vegetable gardens — to the next level.

The nascent two-man company has in two summers outgrown a 500-square-foot greenhouse attached to the craft-brewing Urban Farm Fermentory in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood, which co-founder and fisheries biologist Tyler Gaudet called a “backyard-scale” operation. Now, Fluid Farms is beginning to clear a site in North Yarmouth for a 25,000-square-foot version, a building they believe will be Maine’s first commercial-scale aquaponics facility.

“We’re the only ones selling aquaponic produce commercially,” co-founder Jackson Mcleod said. “There are some other people experimenting with aquaponics in the state, but we haven’t found anybody else who is going to market.”

Fluid Farms will continue at its new site to grow both culinary herbs — collard greens, kale, arugula and several different forms of lettuce — and tilapia, a versatile white fish popular among chefs. But Gaudet and Mcleod said with the extra space, they’ll be able to experiment with a greater variety of vegetable products in addition to the reliable fish.

“Aquaponics is a hybridization of ‘aquaculture,’ raising fish in tanks, and ‘hydroponics,’ which is growing plants without soil in nutrient-rich water,” said Gaudet. “The fish feed the plants, the plants eat the waste, and you get delicious food out of it.

“It’s a fairly new food production method, so there’s still a lot to be learned,” he continued.

From their smaller, unheated Portland greenhouse, Gaudet and Mcleod were only able to operate during the warmer summer months. But during their first two summers working out of the site, they built a small, but loyal wholesale customer base out of three restaurants and a local market. They said they believe they can grow that customer base, with greater production capacity in a space five times as large.

After quickly raising $5,000 through the Internet fundraising site, the fellow Kents Hill School graduates upped their goal to $15,000 in hopes of paying for a heating system that could keep their new location running year round. The deadline for donations to their project through Kickstarter is Saturday, April 13.

If Fluid Farms reaches its new goal, the business promises to give $1,500 worth of produce to Portland’s Preble Street Resource Center, which runs a soup kitchen for the homeless, in addition to the food donations individual Kickstarter donors wish to sign off on.

When the North Yarmouth facility is complete — Gaudet and Mcleod hope to be up and running at their new site by late May — it will be 100 feet long and 25 feet wide, largely resembling a standard greenhouse. Inside, however, will be fish tanks totaling 2,500 gallons in size connected to two 72-foot-by-8-foot raft beds. Atop the beds will be floating foam “rafts,” in which the greens will be planted, allowing their roots to extend into the water beneath.

As the plants mature, they will be moved toward the end of the raft bed. When a raft’s worth of plants is ready to be pulled off the bed and harvested, a new raft with seedlings will be placed at the other end to begin the cycle. Gaudet described it as a wet, slow-moving “conveyor belt” of sorts.

Water from the raft beds will then be piped back around again to the fish tanks, where the plant-eating tilapia will refill it with fertilizing biological waste.

Getting the cycle going takes several weeks, Mcleod said, so moving to a year-round operation is expected to provide efficiencies lost when the partners had to close down and restart their operations annually with the seasons in Portland.

“It’s difficult to shut down the system, because it’s a living system,” he said. “The bacteria have to get established breaking down the fish waste.”

The new Fluid Farms aquaponic facility will be built on land leased at Mad Knight Heritage Farms on North Road in North Yarmouth, while other land nearby is set to be leased by the permaculture group Resilient Roots.