Trevor Kenkel was 13 when the fish and frogs dying from nutrient pollution in his favorite creek by his Montana home motivated him to experiment with aquaponics.
His teenaged tinkering in the garage led to founding Springworks Farm in 2014, while he was a freshman at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, studying biology.
“I became interested in sustainable agriculture after seeing the impacts of agriculture in the ecosystems around me,” he said. “There was this visceral impact for me. A lot of people don’t get the opportunity to see some of the negative consequences of agriculture and the way that we eat.”
Today, Springworks is headquartered in Lisbon, Maine, and counts 200 Hannaford stores, Whole Foods distribution centers, restaurants, and other companies as customers of its leafy greens.
And on June 19, Kenkel, Springworks CEO and president, sliced the grand-opening ribbon with golden scissors on his third greenhouse, totaling about 45,000 square feet of commercial production using the aquaponic farming technique in which fish and plants support each other’s growth in a closed system.
His sister, Sierra Kenkel, was by his side as vice president of the company.
At their company, the nutrient-rich water from raising tilapia is pumped into growing beds, which feeds the leafy greens. The plants, in turn, clean the water and return it to the fish. No chemicals are needed.
“We’re taking what would otherwise be a waste stream and turning it into a positive, as fertilizer,” Kenkel said.
From the start, Springworks greens were U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic, but the products were replacing conventional greens at local restaurants.
“We had to be at a competitive price point, and we also had to be able to articulate what our value proposition was: better shelf life, better quality,” he said. “We’re not relying on the USDA-certified organic label to add value, so much as our product being better than what our customer was buying.”
By 2026, the Kenkels want half a million square feet of aquaponics greenhouse operations on the Lisbon site.
“We’re able to produce a little under a million heads of lettuce a year, and we’ll be a little more than doubling that with the new facility,” Kenkel said the day before the grand opening of the third greenhouse.
Knowing that a mistake on a large scale is much more expensive, Kenkel started small and progressively expanded. At each step, he dealt with the new challenges associated with the scale and made improvements.
“We’ve been very intentional over the years at scaling up as we feel comfortable managing that size system, with where the technology is at and with our customer base,” he said.
The first few years, Kenkel and his team focused on water quality, fertigation, how to link the systems, and updating infrastructure.
The product line is growing too, as the emphasis has transitioned toward more retail.
Springworks is the exclusive provider of organic green leaf lettuce to 200 Hannaford locations, which also carry the organic bibb lettuce and organic romaine pouch, the first three products launched for retail customers.
“Springworks checks every box when it comes to our lettuce supply needs and Zero Food Waste goals,” Hannaford produce category manager Mark Jewell said in a news release. “We also are impressed by their consistent quality and ingenuity. These factors, combined with their exceptional food safety practices, year-round availability, and proximity to our distribution centers, made it an easy decision.”
The aquaponics company has expanded to offer single-cut products for more convenience.
“They cut them once at the base and package them in a clamshell. You can pull out those leaves individually and make a salad with them, make a wrap,” Kenkel said.
Springworks also makes a salad mix.
“Consumers who value quality and transparency are asking supermarkets for organic products from local food producers,” said Sierra Kenkel, who handles sales and marketing as vice president for Springworks.
Kenkel’s goal is to be competitive with the product coming from the Southwest and to eventually replace it for his East Coast customers.
During the supply chain issues early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Springworks was able to fill the orders for regional customers that normally sourced from California, Arizona, or Mexico.
Within the next decade or so, Kenkel sees a shift in the leafy greens industry from 95% centralized production in the Southwest to a more regionalized approach.
The product is naturally fresher when it’s grown near shoppers.
“Both in terms of the carbon footprint and the economics of it, this is a win-win,” Kenkel said. “Pricing will continue to get more competitive.
“And I think all of that is going to lead to that 95% number ending up a lot lower than that in the next decade or so, as more of these hubs of production start to develop closer to where the product is consumed.”
And what about those fish?
They sell the tilapia at a local fish market in Portland, Maine.
“With this process, you get a lot more volume in greens than you do fish,” he said.
Useful Article: A Free Aquaponics Farming Course Is Offered By INMED