A Watsonville company tries to perfect
an infinite loop of food production
Photography by Michelle Magdalena
Jon Parr is grinning from ear to ear as he shows me rows of floating polystyrene rafts sprouting thousands of heads of showy greens. “Taste this,” he says, tearing off a clump of garden cress. “Isn’t it an amazing combination of sweet and spicy and tangy?”
It was exceptionally tender and delicious. So were the sorrel, watercress, romaine, Bibb and butter lettuces we munched on at Viridis Aquaponics, a company Parr started in Watsonville with a partner, Drew Hopkins, just last August.
Aquaponics is a dirt-free greenhouse growing system in which fish and organic vegetables are raised intensively side by side, with fish waste fertilizing the plants. It uses 95% less water than conventional growing methods and produces up to eight times more vegetables per square foot. Eventually, the fish can be harvested and eaten, too.
Because of climate change and the current drought, more people are looking for alternative low-water growing methods, and Parr says interest in their start-up farm is “gigantic.”
“People are more water conscious and more in tune with where their food is coming from. They want better, pesticide-free production on less land,” he says. “We’ve been bombarded with interest from everywhere: Abu Dhabi, Brazil, Bali, Alaska. The world is begging for it. People are begging for it. The earth is begging for it.”
Yes, he really talks like that and so does Hopkins. There’s a palpable atmosphere of gold rush fever inside their futuristic-looking, 2- acre greenhouse that is certified organic by CCOF and went into full production in March. Three more 2-acre greenhouses—where roses once grew for the struggling cut flower business—are set to come online later this year. At full capacity, Viridis predicts production of a staggering 850,000 heads of lettuce a month.
The operation has a slightly survivalist bent. Hopkins—a former events promoter from Park City, Utah—lost his son in a tragic snowmobile accident and began to see the world in a new light. “After my son died, I started prioritizing things differently,” he says. “We were living at 10,000 feet and everything we ate was trucked in. I started to wonder how I was going to feed my family in case of a natural disaster or economic collapse or if gas prices get too high and trucking stops.” He began studying intensive farming methods and was thinking about buying land when he met Parr, who was already experimenting with aquaponics at his home in the Soquel hills.
“Thousands of people do aquaponics as a hobby, but we’re the first to take it to this scale,” says Parr, a former builder who claims to have learned everything he knows from Google.
They teamed up to create a system they call “beyond organic,” because the live fish they use cannot handle any kind of chemical pesticides or fertilizers and there’s not a speck of dirt on the produce they cultivate. The watery environment also allows plants to grow almost twice as fast. Because nutrients are so readily available and the roots don’t have to work as hard, most growth goes to the top of the plant. In their system, a head of lettuce takes 28 days to mature in summer and 36 days in winter, compared to 60–90 days when planted in the ground. And unlike dirt farming, there’s no nitrogen runoff to pollute streams and estuaries. Fittingly, their company name comes from the Latin word for green.
“Everything associated with being a farmer, fish keeper and environmentalist we have on our plate,” he says.
PROBLEMS AND PITFALLS
Nearby in Aptos, Cabrillo College’s Horticulture Department has been experimenting with aquaponics and hydroponics (see box on p. 52 to learn the difference between them) since 2008. While students grow beautiful Bibb lettuce, basil and cherry tomatoes for sale on Saturdays at the Aptos Certified Farmers’ Market, department chair Peter Shaw is not sure the world’s quite ready for aquaponics mega-farms.
“It’s way harder to do than it seems,” Shaw says. “Aquaponics relies on three systems: plants, fish and bacteria. Most of us are plant people, not fish people, and the more systems involved, the more complex it becomes.”
Five years ago, Chris Newman learned this lesson the hard way. He founded Santa Cruz Aquaponics, investing $362,000 of his own money to turn a 1-acre greenhouse in Corralitos into a large-scale aquaponics farm.
“While it was working, it was glorious,” he recalls. “I was growing 1,500 pounds of watercress a month, but couldn’t sell that much.” So he tried Asian specialty crops like bok choy, tatsoi and Japanese mustard, but found he could not compete with outdoor growers on price.
Then he started having problems with the fish. “With that many fish in a closed system, the tanks work really well for a time then crud up,” he says.
Then the bugs moved in. “You create a perfect environment for bugs with so much water all around,” says Newman. “I tried using beneficial insects like ladybugs, but they don’t want to be in a greenhouse and as soon as I’d open the vents, they’d all fly away.”
After two years he threw in the towel and declared bankruptcy. “It was totally heartbreaking. I put my heart and soul into it, and it took me quite a while to get over it psychologically,” says Newman, who now works at an experimental high-CBD cannabis farm in Grass Valley.
State regulations on fish species are another obstacle for aquaponics farmers. “California will not allow the best fish, like barramundi, jade perch and tilapia, which only take 24 months to mature,” explains Shaw—the Cabrillo College professor. “Other fish don’t grow as fast and don’t poop as much as tilapia or don’t tolerate high-density tanks.” Viridis uses native Sacramento perch and sturgeon—which will take at least six years to get to marketable size, but may also produce caviar eventually.
After years of experience, Shaw believes the only way aquaponics can compete with traditional agriculture is by growing things that are out of season, like basil, vine-ripened tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers in winter. “Here I am growing lettuce in the lettuce capital of the world, where lettuce grown outside is really good. Cost-wise, outside always wins,” he says.
Perhaps aquaponics makes more sense in other parts of the country that have long winters, in places with severe water shortages or in an urban environment where units can be stacked 10 feet high.
“Aquaponics actually turns off a lot of our students,” says Shaw. “They see it as industrial ag and they want to be out there in the dirt, farming organically.”
Nonetheless, his class, “Hydroponic Food Production,” is offered in both the spring and fall semesters, and it turns out to be a great teaching tool for all sorts of science, from chemistry, microbiology and fish physiology to math and business skills, not to mention plumbing.
“Water is the most critical issue we have to deal with in our environment,” argues Shaw. “Farmers used to just open the tap and let it rip, but as soon as water is priced at its real value, they won’t be able to afford to grow lettuce in the ground and then hydroponics and aquaponics is going to win out.”
TEACH THE WORLD TO FISH
Faced with a clamor for their techniques and technology, the owners of Viridis are setting up a franchise system and, as of mid-April, expected to have Viridis greenhouses opening within weeks in Sacramento, Austin and Boston, as well as overseas.
“Our goal is not to truck produce from Watsonville all over the nation, but we want to make these systems available around the country,” says Parr. Franchisees will be required to be certified at the farm in Watsonville, where the secrets will be shared in classrooms that are being built in a former packing shed.
Hopkins explains the closed loop system as follows: Fish are raised in a large black tank right next to a couple of smaller blue tanks with water hyacinths growing on the top. Fish poop sinks to the bottom of the black tank and is pumped into the water hyacinth tanks where the plants filter it and make the nutrients bioavailable for growing produce in the floating raft beds.
“It’s an equation of how many pounds of fish are needed per square foot of growing surface,” says Hopkins, adding that people often fail because they don’t give the fish enough room to exercise. Starting up is also “slightly cost prohibitive,” he acknowledges, but Viridis hopes to recoup its investment in three years.
Getting back to people who just want to feed their families, Viridis also builds and markets a 10-by-12-foot DIY aquaponics greenhouse kit. Its debut at the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show generated lots of interest and 20 orders. The kit includes: a redwood-clad fish tank with fish; a filtration tank; a 3-by-10-foot wicking bed for root crops and vines like beans or tomatoes; a 4-by-10-foot raft bed for greens; pumps; filters; and a solar panel that allows it to run off the grid. They say it will produce six heads of leafy greens a day and costs $8,000 as a kit or $10,000 fully installed.
For the simply curious, Viridis holds a free informational lecture and tour of its greenhouses one Saturday each month. You can find the dates on the Viridis Facebook page.
CLOSING THE LOOP
The only inputs Viridis currently uses in its greenhouse are seeds, a small amount of water and commercial fish food. The type of fish food is not important, according to Parr, but he’s working on a composting scheme to close the loop.
He plans to collect food waste from restaurants that serve Viridis produce, especially meaty wastes, and use it to attract black soldier flies. “They are native to our area and can eat everything we give them every day,” he says. “They are such aggressive eaters that the pheromones they give off attract adults to lay their eggs, which turn into grubs 1 inch long and as thick as a pencil.”
Yum! There’s nothing a hungry fish likes more than a big fat grub. A true infinite loop system is the holy grail of food production, and it may not be as far off as it sounds. There’s immense potential, not only for our area but also for isolated communities—such as those in space. Though not at liberty to provide details, Viridis is preparing lab space at the farm so that representatives of “a U.S. agency” can study its techniques.
With so many projects underway, selling Viridis produce almost seems like an afterthought. But Stan Hughes, a veteran of Ledyard-Performance Foodservice and Lucky Stores, was brought in to get its 14 products to market.
He has a contract to sell directly to five dining halls at UC Santa Cruz and distributes through Coast Produce in Santa Cruz and Russo’s Produce in Monterey, among others around the state.
Local restaurants, like Shadowbrook in Capitola, Sanderlings at Seascape and TusCA at Hyatt Regency Hotel in Monterey, currently serve Viridis produce. Local shoppers can pick up some of its products at AJ’s Market in Aptos.
Heads of lettuce and other greens are packed in clamshells that include the live root ball, which offers a huge advantage to consumers.
Since they are living plants, you can stick the roots in a glass of water and the greens will stay fresh, unrefrigerated, for weeks. After eating the lettuce, you can even plant the roots in the ground, and Parr promises they will grow a new head or maybe two.
It almost sounds too good to be true, but isn’t that the way the future was supposed to be?
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil, using liquid nutrients. It’s being used by local commercial farms like Watsonville’s California Pajarosa, a cut rose grower, and Tanimura & Antle, for a Tennessee operation (see p. 53). Plants can be grown intensively in water or inert substances like perlite, gravel or coconut husks. Nutrients can be organic or chemical based, and runoff water is generally recirculated.
Aquaponics is the marriage of hydroponics and aquaculture, or freshwater fish farming. (Saltwater fish farming is known as mariculture.) In aquaponics, plants and fish are raised side by side, with fish waste used to fertilize the plants growing on floating beds in nutrientenriched water. Fish can also be harvested when they reach maturity. By nature, the system must be organic because fish cannot tolerate chemical pesticides or fertilizers.
Aeroponics is a system where plants grow with their roots suspended in air. A fine mist of nutrients is sprayed on the roots periodically. Aeroponics has been investigated by NASA for use in zero gravity conditions as it uses 65% less water and 75% less nutrients than hydroponics.
A TRADITIONAL AG FIRM MAKES A SPLASH
Tanimura & Antle, the Salinas Valley greens giant, is also staking a claim to the future with a “big investment” in hydroponically grown lettuce.
Since 2008, the Spreckels-based grower/shipper has been quietly growing butter lettuce hydroponically in a 12-acre greenhouse in Livingston, Tennessee—a facility that works much like Viridis’ aquaponic greenhouse but uses liquid nutrients instead of fish waste to grow the plants.
“One acre of greenhouse produces as much as 50 acres of crop land and uses 95% less water and fertilizer,” says president Rick Antle, adding that the Tennessee location, between the homes of FedEx and UPS, gives the company access to 85% of the nation’s consumers by overnight delivery.
And by September 1, TA will bring an additional 3 acres of “next generation” greenhouses online at the Tennessee facility. Antle has made four trips to Holland in the past year to import the most advanced hydroponic technology.
“The new systems will capture rainfall and, on humid days, harvest water out of the air,” he says. It will also permit TA to begin growing other types of leafy greens, like kales and spinach, indoors.
Antle doesn’t see hydroponics or aquaponics replacing the lettuce fields here in the Salad Bowl of the World because land prices are at a premium and “we can do such high-quality lettuce in the ground here in California.” But he sees it as a valuable way to provide fresh greens elsewhere in the country.
“This is part of the future—it allows you to have production in harsher climates and be closer to the markets,” he says. —DL