When Ellen Perlman heard about aquaponics through a chance meeting, it perked up the environmentalist in her.
“I am very interested in saving the planet and sustainability,” she said. “I never in my wildest dreams imagined I’d be farming fish.”
After taking a course in Florida taught by James Rakocy, the father of modern aquaponics, Perlman decided to start Chesapeake Aquaponics in 2011. The sustainable food production system combines aquaculture and hydroponics, a method of growing plants in water without soil.
In a nutshell, fish expel their waste into water, the plants absorb the nutrients from the water after solid waste is removed, and the clean water at the end of the process is pumped back into the fish tanks.
“We like their poop,” Perlman said of the fish. “They make great poop.”
The plants don’t need to be watered, and many in the aquaponics world say the plants grow faster this way.
“It’s sort of like a fish farm with an add-on produce business,” said Stuart Fink, Perlman’s business partner.
Chesapeake Aquaponics has four tanks — three with about 500 tilapia each and one with about 30 adult coy — that have helped grow sage, purple basil, mint, Swiss chard, chives, string beans, lavender and lettuce. As summer turns to fall, Perlman and Fink are moving their focus to 30 varieties of lettuce. They hope to install plumbing in a third greenhouse before the winter.
In operation since spring 2012, the company already has made a name for itself locally, selling its products to The Grill at Harryman House in Reisterstown, Linwoods in Owings Mills, Suburban Club and Gourmet Again in Pikesville, and at the Reisterstown farmers’ market.
Andy Hoffman, owner of Gourmet Again, said his company is selling Chesapeake Aquaponics’ herbs and lettuce and using the lettuce in its salad bar. Hoffman said it was a no-brainer to bring the products in.
“It allowed us to really tell people we’re selling an organic product that’s grown right up the road,” he said, adding that some customers need to be educated about organic products, but that most can taste the difference.
Chesapeake Aquaponics also attracted the attention of Jessica Normington, executive director of the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce. The chamber’s farmers’ market didn’t have anyone selling fresh herbs, and customers were asking for organic products.
“It’s the hot topic of conversation,” Normington said.
Earlier this month, Chesapeake Aquaponics became the first aquaponics farm to be certified under the Good Agricultural Practices program by the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
In addition to the sustainable and organic aspects, aquaponics has the advantage that it works anywhere and requires very little water be added to the system. Sylvia Bernstein, founder of The Aquaponic Source in Colorado, said aquaponics is taking off in warm and water-challenged environments in the U.S., such as Florida and Texas. Internationally, aquaponics is used in Australia, Israel and throughout the Middle East.
“There’s very little human interaction beyond feeding the fish, basic plant care and some monitoring,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein, whose company sells systems, supplies and educational materials and teaches courses, said aquaponics maintains the benefits of its parent disciplines — aquaculture and hydroponics — but subtracts some of the environmental costs. Hydroponics is chemical-intensive, and aquaculture does not recycle the water and the waste the way aquaponics does.
“An aquaponics system doesn’t get out of balance,” Bernstein said. “You don’t ever have to dump that water.”
While they do add a few nutrients to the water at Chesapeake Aquaponics, they are constantly trying to get the operation closer to sustainability.
“Our goal is to demonstrate that we can make this work,” Fink said.
And the operation has to be green. Adding chemicals to the water would hurt the plants, and spraying pesticides on the plants would hurt the fish. To get other insects off of the plants, they bring in lady bugs. Solid waste is composted, and they even hope to add solar panels so they can be less reliant on propane, at least in the warmer months.
“I’m really impressed with their operation, and it’s great to have a commercial operator in the area that we can point to as a model for how to take the farm to the next level,” said Dave Love, assistant scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, which has its own aquaponics project.
As Chesapeake Aquaponics hones its lettuce operation, its local customers will have lettuce tastings so they can make their own seed mixes. Fink said each lettuce tastes different.
“Our kids, they won’t eat regular lettuce when they go out to restaurants,” said Fink. “They’ve become lettuce snobs.”
Although they are divorced, Fink joined Perlman in September to help take the business to the next level.
Much like the seed mixes they’ll be making in the near future, running an aquaponics farm requires careful attention and constant innovation.
Perlman and Fink work every day, and only recently hired some help. There’s never a dull moment, as they are constantly learning new things and tweaking the system, having recently added heat to the fish tanks after noticing a slowdown in winter production.
“It’s hasn’t gotten routine,” Fink said. “It’s always something new and exciting.”
Although Perlman never thought she’d be farming fish, a chance meeting with someone interested in aquaponics led her to take the course that inspired her. As the system gets tweaked and more efficient over time, she and Fink hope to continue to grow the business.
“I’m just your average soccer mom, and I learned how to do something complicated,” Perlman said.