302 Aquaponics: A More Sustainable Way to Farm
No pesticides, no fertilizer, no soil, 800 heads of lettuce a day and maybe a fish dinner or two — that is the plan for recently opened 302 Aquaponics in Dover.
The company, founded in February 2019, represents a growing sector of agribusiness, and its owner, Doug Wood, believes it’s the future of agriculture.
Inside the 15,000-square-foot greenhouse, 12 blue 800-gallon tanks with windows in the side bubble away. “This is actually our nursery,” he says.
In each tank, between 250 to 300 fish, tilapia, do what fish do — eat, swim and poop. It’s the waste that gets Wood excited. That is what fuels the agriculture.
Water from the tanks is passed through biomechanical filters that break down the waste into nitrate. The nitrate-rich water is pumped into long, low tanks with floating rafts. Lettuce seedlings — romaine, spring mix, summer crisp and Waldmann’s — are placed in holes in the rafts and draw the nitrate up through their roots. This process provides fertilizer for the plants while simultaneously cleaning the water.
The cleaned water is then pumped back to the fish tanks and the process starts again.
Solids filtered out of the water are pumped to a different tank filled with clay pellets, where heavier, slower-growing plants such as kale, broccoli, cauliflower and swiss chard are expected to be grown.
There is no need for pesticides since the greenhouse is an enclosed space. Other problems that have shown up in commercial lettuces — such as E. coli contamination — are not worries here.
“We’re the only people handling [the produce], and fish don’t carry E. coli,” says Janelle Bowen, greenhouse manager at 302 Aquaponics.
The process is still labor intensive at this point, since Wood and Bowen are doing most of the planting and harvesting work to ensure quality control at the beginning. They hope to hire others as they continue to grow.
The plan is to sell the produce to local schools and restaurants, with a small amount saved for retail sale.
302 Aquaponics does not have a license or facility to filet the fish, so the company hopes to sell those whole in the Philadelphia market. The fish come to the facility as guppies, weighing about 1 gram, and they are sold at 1 kilogram (about 3 pounds).
302 Aquaponics uses about a tenth of the water it would take to grow plants in the ground, has relatively low energy consumption and on average turns out a product faster than traditional farms would — in about 38 days. 302 Aquaponics’ approach also eliminates the need to weed or till soil, there are no soil-borne diseases, and no pesticides or chemicals are used. Wood even feeds the fish non-GMO food. Finally, 302 Aquaponics has a smaller carbon footprint because the produce isn’t being shipped across the country.
Wood, a former special education teacher, started out growing strawberries and lettuce hydroponically in a backyard greenhouse several years ago. He says it took the death of his mother to realize that life was short and he had to take a chance to do what he loved on a large scale.
“This was just a hobby. I don’t want to be that dude in the end who says, ‘I should have done that,’” says Wood. One of his goals, besides making the business work, is to slowly expand the product line. “I joke that I want a watermelon at Christmas next year.”