DOVER "“ When the timer in Doug Wood's greenhouse goes off four times a day it means it's time to feed the fish: all 3,000 of them.
His business, 302 Aquaponics, is part of a burgeoning sector of agribusiness that's known as aquaponics, a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics.
In short, the science combines raising fish and using their waste to fertilize plants grown without soil. In practice, the science is bit more detailed and regimented, as evidenced by Wood's 24/7 growing operation and four-times-daily feeding of thousands of tilapias.
While aquaponics has flourished in recent decades overseas, especially in places like Australia where water resources are scarcer, the industry only took hold in America in the past decade. As of 2018, the global aquaponics market size is valued at upward of $630 million, according to a study by analytics firm IndustryARC.
North America's share of that market has grown to more than 40% and will likely expand further with increasing interest in the technology among consumers and end-point suppliers. Growers are also buoyed by the 2017 decision of the National Organic Standards Board to make aquaponic farms eligible for U.S. Department of Agriculture organic certification.
While Wood recognized the prospects for the burgeoning sector, it was a life-changing moment that propelled him to make the investment in 302 Aquaponics.
"My mom passed away and I was like, "˜Let's do it.' I've always wanted to work off the farm, but I only did it as a hobby. I couldn't teach and do this," said Wood, who taught special education in the Capital and Smyrna school districts for years.
Although he had flirted with hydroponic growing of vegetables at his 220-acre farmstead off Simms Woods Road in Dover, he didn't know anything about aquaponics until he stumbled across the idea one night online.
"I'm YouTube-taught. It really sparked my interest," he said with a laugh, noting he later also took an aquaponics workshop at Delaware State University to study up further.
From there, he invested more than a million dollars into the commercial operation, erecting a more than 15,000-square-foot greenhouse and installing a waterfall filtration system connected to 12 tanks of about 250 tilapias each.
Each day the fish are fed a non-genetically modified fish food blend, and they excrete nitrogen that turns into nitrites through the system. The nutrient-enriched water then feeds into beds of thousands of lettuce seedlings, including varieties like Romaine, Summer Crisp and Waldmann's. Once grown, the heads of lettuce are harvested, and the water returned to the fish tanks in a continuous cycle. The only water pumped into the system from his well is for that lost through evaporation.
The 24/7 operation would employ upward of five people, Wood said, and he's received interest from students from DSU and Future Farmers of America chapters at local high schools who would like to be involved.
Wood said that once both halves of his system are up and running later this year, he hopes to harvest upward of 800 heads of lettuce a day in the system. He'll also harvest about 500 fish at a time once they reach an age of 9 months, with each fish weighing around 4 pounds.
While he's still looking for a wholesaler who would be able to take on such a large order of fish, Woods said that he hopes to sell the abundance of produce to local school districts as well as restaurants throughout the state.
Ronnie Burke, corporate chef at SoDel Concepts, which operates 12 independent restaurants in Sussex County, can attest to the benefits of such locally sourced produce. SoDel has partnered with Bearhole Farms in Selbyville, which opened its small aquaponics operation in 2015, to buy local lettuce for its Fenwick Island restaurant Catch 54.
"[Bearhole owner] Cindy Stevens reached out to us about the opportunity, and when we saw the greenhouse, it was a no-brainer," Burke said. "I was very familiar with hydroponic farms, but the aquaponic was mind-blowing with all of its sustainability benefits."
Burke noted that the aquaponically grown lettuces last for weeks longer and keep their texture better than produce trucked in from outside areas.
"You can taste the lettuces as their true flavors, with no concern about pesticides or anything they may have been spraying on the plants," he said. "The fact that it's grown safely, and you know where it was grown from seed to sale, that's becoming more important for the consumer every day."