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Startup Profile: Central NY Aquaponic Farm, a Business and Testing Ground for Future of Agriculture

Startup Profile: Central NY Aquaponic Farm, a Business and Testing Ground for Future of Agriculture

October 18, 2011 |

What began as a business plan drawn up for fun has spawned Aqua Vita Farms, central New York’s first aquaponic farm.

Aqua Vita Farms was founded by Mark Doherty and seeks to provide wholesale food distributors with safe, high value, aquaponically grown seafood and produce. Retrofitting and construction on the company’s indoor farming facility, a 13,000 square foot building in Sherrill, N.Y. that was formerly a polishing facility for Oneida Silverware, kicked off in May of this year. The company, which currently raises bluegill fish, and grows lettuce, leafy greens and herbs in its custom-made aquaponic systems, had it first harvest shortly thereafter in August.

Inspired by an article

The idea for Aqua Vita Farms was inspired by an article that Doherty came across while reading the Wall Street Journal about a year and a half ago describing another aquaponic farm, Sweet Water Organics, he said. At the time he had just quit his job, gone back to school for his MBA, and was trying to decide what he was going to do with his degree when he graduated in the spring of 2011.

Doherty, who possesses a background in agriculture and hydroponics as well as 15 years of experience in the restaurant industry said he began to perceive a “paradigm shift” in the way Americans view their food, and heard more people asking questions about where it came from. Thus, he used his final semester’s class project to refine his business plan for Aqua Vita Farms.

Looking for a solution to a growing problem

Doherty is part of a growing number of sustainable agriculture entrepreneurs attempting to find the answer to a looming problem: with world population set to reach 9 billion people by 2050 and a decrease in the availability of arable land, how will we feed everyone?

Doherty sees aquaponics, hydroponics, and other innovative methods of vertical farming as the answer.

“We do have the ability to build vertical farms,” he said. “It’s absolutely critical to figure out how to do it within our means and existing infrastructure.”

Aqua Vita Farms is set up in a way that loosely reflects the premise of vertical farming in that the tanks and filters belonging to the aquaponic system are stacked on top of one another. Doherty views his and similar aquaponic farms around the country as the testing grounds for the future of agriculture.

A view inside Aqua Vita Farms.

The combination of hydroponics with aquaculture that forms an aquaponic system serves to create a more optimized and sustainable food production system by solving for problems that occur in the individual systems. With hydroponics, a grower often must rely upon commercial fertilizers in order to enrich the water, while in aquaculture the fish farmer must constantly monitor the toxicity levels of the water that results from fish effluents (waste).

Inside Aqua Vita Farms

Water in Doherty’s aquaponic system is recirculated by gravity as the tanks and filters are stacked on top of one another in the growing rooms, which possess 14-foot ceilings. In his aquaponic system, the fish effluent in the water provides an organic nutrient source, or natural fertilizer, for the plants being grown in the system. The plants in turn consume the natural fertilizer and in the process filter and purify the water, which is subsequently recirculated back to the fish. On top of the natural filtration the plants provide, Aqua Vita Farms also uses an additional filtration system that removes solids before reaching the plants.

“Think of it this way,” Doherty said. “The same process is happening in your fish tank at home (or whatever). Fish eat and create waste; that waste is in the form of ammonia. The filters (because of healthy bacteria) convert the ammonia to nitrogen. When the nitrogen levels get too high you have to do a water change. With aquaponics, we feed the nitrogen to the plants, therefore we don’t have to do the water change.”

Doherty also points out that aquaponics has a number of advantages over traditional soil farming in that systems require less water since it is constantly recirculated and there is no need to introduce chemical fertilizers.

In addition to finding an answer to a global problem, Aqua Vita Farms hopes to solve a local problem by not only making use of existing infrastructure (long dormant industry buildings), but also fulfilling the community’s demand for local produce.

“We live in a community where there’s all these empty buildings,” Doherty said. Tearing existing buildings down in order to build new ones just doesn’t line up with the idea of sustainability, he said. He was able to retrofit the old Oneida silverware polishing facility Aqua Vita currently occupies.

Finding the resources to build the farm

In order to get Aqua Vita up and running, Doherty had to personally invest 30 percent in the initial development of the farm, while the remaining portion came from a small business loan from a local bank. That loan came in part because of backing from a USDA guarantee program. Aqua Vita also received a $20,000 grant from local economic development organization Mohawk Valley EDGE.

While the farm will essentially sustain itself once it’s fully up and running, it’s also a “very equipment-intensive project,” he said. The building they currently occupy required a large amount of construction and retrofitting, which in the end cost almost as much as it would have to build a completely new structure to their exact specifications, Doherty said.

Sales and Marketing

From this building the farm has been able to supply wholesalers from Utica to Syracuse, N.Y. with fresh lettuce mix that is then shipped to area restaurants for use within days of being harvested. This is a vast improvement from lettuce that can sometimes spend more than a week traveling to diners’ plates from Southern California, where lettuce is typically grown and manufactured. Aqua Vita Farms also supplies a handful of small retail markets, and often sells its produce directly to consumers at area farmers markets.

Currently, Aqua Vita is harvesting about 200 pounds of greens a week and plans to reach production levels of about 1,600 pounds a week within the next four months.

Facebook has been a huge tool in their marketing plan, and recent local publicity in newspapers and on television has led to a spike in demand. “The greatest thing is that we’re in an area that supports local businesses,” Doherty said.

Doherty said he hopes for demand to move “back up the chain” to his business through word of mouth and Aqua Vita’s marketing efforts.

“Our goal is to have consumers go to their favorite restaurant and say to them, ‘We really love Aqua Vita lettuce mix, do you carry that?’” he said.

The fish raised in the aquaponic systems will be sold through wholesalers to supermarkets in large metro areas no more than 150 miles from Aqua Vita’s location in Sherrill, NY.

The Future

Doherty said he believes Aqua Vita will reach profitability by the third quarter of their second year in operation. He also noted that market demand for his products has been consistent and strong.

“If people are going to keep buying it, we’re going to keep growing it,” he said. Plans are also in the works to start producing tomatoes and raising tilapia.

By the end of this year, Doherty hopes to hire at least one more employee, and potentially two more next year. All lettuce and produce is harvested by hand at Aqua Vita Farms, so as demand increases the amount of manpower required will rise proportionally. He also said the large amount of space still available in Aqua Vita’s current facility would provide the company with opportunity to expand and grow. He would like to be able to offer a wider variety of products later on down the line.


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