Trevor Kenkel bought his first aquaponics farming setup, a tank, five goldish, and some lettuce seedlings around age 13 in his home state of Montana. At that time, he said, the salad was far from his favorite meal.
“Growing up in Montana you’re on like the end of the distribution chain,” Kenkel said. “So, whatever we were getting for greens was not good.”
At 19, right before starting at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Kenkel launched his aquaponic farming business, Springworks Farm, based in Lisbon. Now, at 26, producing over one million heads of lettuce a year, Kenkel said that salad is, in fact, his favorite meal so long as it’s fresh.
“I eat salad twice a day,” Kenkel said. “As long as it’s good lettuce.”
In April, Springworks Farm announced plans to expand its operation in Lisbon from roughly 18,000 square feet to 500,000 square feet by 2026.
With one 40,000-square-foot addition already complete, Kenkel said the expansion in total could bring their production up to around 20 million heads of lettuce a year and from 60,000 to one million pounds of fish, which the company also just began to sell locally in Portland.
Springworks Farms, which is the largest of its kind in the northeast, uses a technique known as aquaponic farming, which uses greenhouses, tanks of water, live fish, and seedlings to grow crops. The waste by-product of the fish ultimately fertilizes the lettuce, which grows from the nutrient-rich water. In turn, the lettuce filters the water, creating a circular and symbiotic method of agriculture.
“We’re essentially stewards of that ecosystem,” Kenkel said. “We’re constantly testing the water to kind of push it in the direction that is most appropriate for fish and plant health.”
The company sells a variety of products, which include baby green romaine lettuce, Boston bibb lettuce, green leaf lettuce, and others
Kenkel said that the impacts of COVID-19, in a way, boosted the demand for Springworks’ products, in part due to nationwide supply chain disruptions that made buying locally the better option for customers. Springworks distributes to a wide range of local restaurants and stores, with the largest customers being Whole Foods and Hannaford Supermarkets.
“We first began working with Springworks in 2017 where they initially delivered product to five stores —and now that’s evolved to all 184 of our stores across our five-state operating area,” said Hannaford External Communications Manager Ericka Dodge, noting that the Springworks’ prices are competitive with other organic products the supermarket carries. “Being able to carry products that are grown closer to our customers’ homes is a win all the way around.”
According to Kenkel, because the water is recycled through the aquaponic system, his farm is roughly 90-95% more water-efficient than typical farming methods and 20x more productive. The company’s produce is certified organic and uses no pesticides.
“Right now, more than 95% of America’s greens are produced in Arizona and California,” Kenkel said. “The product that we replace on the shelf, we’re cutting out 3,000 plus food-miles of transportation.”
According to Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Communications Director Mark Latti, while there are around 10 educational aquaponic operations in the state, Springworks is the only registered commercial farm in Maine.
Another, non-commercial operation in the Midcoast area, is Canopy Farms in Brunswick, which has been operating an aquaponic greenhouse since around 2019.
According to Canopy Farms Operator Kate Holocomb, the operation is intended to provide high-quality, farm-to-table produce to the Tao Yuan restaurant and Zao Ze Café & Market in Brunswick, as well as Bao Bao Dumpling House in Portland.
The farm also offers a small CSA and occasionally sells produce elsewhere, such as through Zao Ze’s market.
“The biggest appeal is that it is an ecological system, it is a living system,” Holocomb said. “In aquaponic growing, you’re cultivating different life-forms that complement each other.”
The 3,000 square foot greenhouse produces a variety of produce, including greens, herbs, tomatoes, peppers, and other crops.
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