The future of farming is now

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South Mountain MicroFarm uses aquaponics to raise fish and grow produce in Boonsboro

HERALD MAIL MEDIA – CRYSTAL SCHELLE – BOONSBORO MD — Before walking into the greenhouse at South Mountain MicroFarm, one would think you’re walking into a clean room for microchips, not microgreens.

There’s a protocol of cleaning shoes and washing hands before stepping inside. But once the door swings open, it isn’t the stuff of sci-fi movies of starch white walls, but a little ecosystem of lush greenery thriving in a building sitting on farm off Clevelandtown Road in Boonsboro.

Levi Sellers, 32, was inspired after a visit to Epcot Center as a child. There he saw a trestle system that had tomatoes and cucumbers grow on the vine vertically. It was something that is used in Netherlands.

“I thought as a kid that was fascinating. It was the future of agriculture,” he said. “Then I got into my 20s and none of it is here. We’re doing the same practices, why has nothing changed? I figure I would be the beginning of the change — or at least do things that are occurring elsewhere.”

Sellers grew up in Boonsboro. His father, Mark, ran Cumberland Valley Recycling for 12 years. The younger Sellers worked beside his father until he moved out West to pursue his own dreams. But when his father was thinking of getting out of the business, the Sellers family was thinking of a way that they could all work together again. That’s when Sellers thought of this new type of farming called a microfarm based on aquaponics, something he started researching about 12 years ago.

“I got into researching hydroponics, which is very similar to this type of system, but what they use for nutrients in that system is mined and manufactured minerals. A lot of times those can be petroleum-based. Finding that out and realizing that was our food source made me kind of disgusted of that technique,” he said. “But I absolutely loved the quick growth rates, the closer planting density, the controlled environment you can grow all that in and produce year round. That put me on a path to grow a more organic way to produce food as well. Then I fell into aquaponics, to me it was the holy grail of agriculture. You can control the weather in a controlled environment greenhouse. You can have more accelerated growth rates with a more organic source of nutrients. But with that, not only is it an organic source of nutrients but there’s a lot more nutrients available to the crops allowing them to be more nutritious for us to eat. You are what you eat. Crops are the same way. If they’re eating a more healthier source of nutrients and they provide a healthier source for us.”

Levi moved home with his girlfriend, Brittany Poole. And they along with his father and mother Billie Jo, who are co-owners, started to put the idea into a plan of raising fish and growing produce that didn’t use chemicals. The result was South Mountain MicroFarm, which opened in June 2016, just a month after Poole gave birth to their daughter, Sedona.

South Mountain MicroFarm’s mission is to raise tilapia in tanks that would, in turn, help to fertilize the leafy greens they grow on the site. Using special LED technology, South Mountain MicroFarm is able to grow fresh produce and fish year round.

Symbiotic relationship

“In order to develop this system, you have to start with fish,” Sellers said. “Fish secrete their waste and then the waste produces ammonia in the water and that’s what attracts the naturally occurring bacteria to find a home in this system. And the naturally occurring bacteria is actually the link between the fish and the plants.”

There are six tanks of between 200 and 300 fish in each system — a main system and a nursery system — which houses about 2,500 tilapia.

“We chose tilapia because they’re very tolerant of different water quality perimeters in changes and fluctuations,” he said. “They’re a real hearty fish and they’re a very marketable fillet, too. Given a lot of misconceptions in the lot articles you read about tilapia and how bad it is for you, it’s all dependent on how it’s raised. We wanted to showcase that as well that raising them in a more ecosystem or natural environment, these fish can actually be a healthy source of food.”

And that also meant that to raise the fish, they wanted to make sure they were eating healthfully as well.

“One the thing people don’t realize about the aqua cultural industry is that it was developed to save natural schools of fish. Yet, the main ingredient in commercial fish feed is fish meal, which is sourced from wild caught fish, so it’s kind of counter productive. That’s when we dove even more into the feed input in our system that a lot of the fish meal is plant-based. These fish are omnivores and they do really well with a plant-based meal,” he said.

Sellers calls the relationship between the fish and plants “symbiotic.”

“The way this system works is that it can’t live without the plants. The fish can’t live without the plants and the plants can’t live without the fish. So when set up this system we initially stocked it with fish, but shortly there after maybe a week or two weeks, we added the plants into the operation,” he said. “They are the filtration for the nutrients that the fish create that if it reaches certain levels can be toxic to their health. Really, one can’t live without the other.”

The plants are raised in what are called rafts — rectangle plates with holes for the plants — that sit over huge channels that are filled with the filtered water from the fish. The rafts are placed on top of the channels that allow the roots to soak into the water. The channels are kept close together because farmers don’t work in between but at the end, pulling the raft to the end and harvesting the food.

The produce Sellers grows is mainly leafy greens — kale, lettuce spinach, and more. In the trestle system they grow mainly cucumbers. An old injury kept him from growing tomatoes this year, but he hopes to return to it next year.

“This is year-round. There’s no end to our production. It’s like a freight train, once you start it going — you can’t stop it,” he said.

Every day, they harvest 144 heads of greens.

“That’s harvesting at the back of the rafts,” he said. “That’s transplanting from our seedling nursery, our young plant nursery, into our main system. You’re doing 200 plants at each stage to get 144 at the end. Some seeds don’t germinate and others don’t grow the way you like them to. That’s genetics. We feed the fish. Check water quality perimeters to make sure the water is good for both the fish and the plants.”

Sellers said the greenhouse has an 1/8th of an acre of production and “on that 1/8th acre is what a soil farm can do on 1 acre, only using 1/10th of the water.”

“We’re a lot more efficient in our resource use and using the LED technology we’re also a lot more efficient in our energy usage. Each fixture uses 325 watts whereas in a traditional greenhouse uses 1,000 wats per fixture,” he said.

The biggest hurdle, he said, was overcoming the licensing and regulations to even allow the farm to exist.

“The Maryland Department of Agriculture was really weary of raising fish inland and if any of our system waters would find its way into native streams or if this nonnative fish might find its way into waterways,” he said. “We assured them that this is completely sealed greenhouse and a very secure structure. And one of the reasons is why is our system constantly recirculates is that we have no off flow from our system as well.”

Why aquaponics

Sellers said what he likes the most about aquaponics is not only the great-tasting produce and fish it can produce, but that it is all done without pesticides and chemicals, or even the possibility of contamination.

“As any parent, you want to always want to provide what’s best for your kids,” he said. “This definitely makes me feel good knowing that the food that she’s eating is not infused with all these chemicals and give her health problems later in the future.”

Although it might seem futuristic, Sellers said the Aztecs did a similar style of aquaponics. And that everything he is doing is just what happens in nature, and the results can be found in the taste, which is what sits his business apart from hydroponics.

“Flavor profile is a big thing for our crop. And that flavor I would translate into nutrition as well, you’re tasting the nutrients you’re getting. It’s packed full of flavor, it’s packed full of nutrients. Because the fish create a very nutrient rich water, they increase the micronutrient content, which a lot of times in hydroponics there’s a lot of focus on micronutrients they focus on nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium your macronutrients. It’s a beautiful product without flavor,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of customers come back and say that our product tastes like garden fresh vegetables, even in the middle of winter.”

But the bottom line, he said, is education about the food.

“Not only is this healthier because it has more readily available nutrition in it, it lacks the chemicals that affects your body,” he said, noting that the food he sells is comparable to organic prices.

He also said the way lettuce, for instance, is harvested helps the produce to last longer, on average up to two weeks in the fridge.

“We harvest our lettuce with roots intact so that it’s still a living head of lettuce,” he said. “So it gives you a longer shelf life as well and hold the nutritional value to that head, because it’s still living, but it’s in a hibernation state because it was chilled prior to delivery.”

Looking up and out

As the farm looks to expand, Sellers said they plan to vertically integrate the greenhouse they already have.

“We’re trying to use our better facility and be more efficient in our square footage. Microgreen rack is our first stage of vertical integration That’s because microgreens don’t require a lot of high-intensity light levels,” he said. “This allows us to produce in four layers, four times more layers on a plane. A lot more production out of this a plane or production method here.”

Vertically integrating the greenhouse allows them not only more production, but he said he hopes to add a new variety of produce.

But as he looks to the future, Sellers hopes that South Mountain MicroFarm will continue to have a good reputation with its consumers and the community.

“I would say they think of we’re a focused company not just providing a healthy product for the consumers, but producing that product in a method that’s healthy for the environment and the surrounding ecosystems as well,” he said.

Posted by: Crystal Schelle, Herald-Mail Media, Aug 1, 2018

Picture: Crystal Schelle, Levi Sellars owns and operates South Mountain MicroFarm