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Business Savvy and Organic Certification Propel Aquaponics Operation in Tennessee

September 7, 2012 |

Joel Townsend, Founder of Greater Growth holding a raft of mature lettuce. Photo credit: Greater Growth.

Seafood and produce grown indoors without the benefit of soil or open water may seem like the stuff of 1960’s sci-fi films, but for Lenoir City, Tennessee company Greater Growth, the future is now.

Established in 2011 after co-owner Joel Townsend left his job as a stockbroker, Greater Growth utilizes aquaponics technology to fuse production of fish and vegetables into a single, indoor enterprise. The technology combines modern aquaculture with hydroponics to create a cyclical system of farming.

Townsend undertook the effort at the urging of his wife Linda. “I viewed myself as retired and my wife did not,” Townsend said in a phone interview. They invested a combination of personal capital and bank loans in the business, breaking ground in March 2011 and kicking off production in December of the same year.

Before the fish began swimming, though, Townsend had to decide which kind. Townsend’s research led him to tilapia, a fish widely consumed in the US, but even then he wasn’t convinced of its market potential. “I was not going to be a huge multi-acre operation and I knew it. You just really can’t compete price-wise as a small operation unless you have some sort of an upsell.”

His ‘upsell’ ended up being USDA organic certification for his lettuce, leafy greens and herbs, a challenging goal for any enterprise and especially for one employing aquaponics.

Despite the difficulty of obtaining organic certification, though, Townsend made it happen, and his choice of tilapia proved beneficial to that end. “Tilapia, if you treat them right and get good stock, are a very low disease fish,” he said. “Catfish in a commercial concentration get too many diseases, and you have to constantly medicate them.” That flow of antibiotics ruins organic aspirations, so the hardy tilapia played right into his hand.

Next came the choice of a companion product. Townsend looked at market demand in his area and elected to grow organic lettuce as opposed to selecting an obscure crop with a smaller base market.

He says lettuce is well-suited for the aquaponics system, but economic considerations figure in as well. “I look at all of my space out there in terms of what product I can grow and how long it will take,” he said. Year-round demand for lettuce is strong, but this is no monoculture. “I need some sort of a selection, however at the same time there are some products that just aren’t economical to grow in a situation like this. You just have to go through and analyze what you’re getting out of your area.”

He says the enterprise sounds simple, but is not. His 12,000-square foot greenhouse is home to huge water tanks where the tilapia reside. Their waste is filtered and then gravity-fed into the hydroponics system where produce, primarily lettuce, is grown. Townsend’s methods closely parallel those used in the Virgin Islands, but with a twist: The entire operation is operated indoors, whereas the Caribbean method leaves the fish tanks outside. The tropical nature of tilapia, which require water temperatures in the 70’s Fahrenheit, made it necessary to enclose the entire enterprise.

Lettuce growing in the Greater Growth aquaponic greenhouse. Photo credit: Greater Growth.

Townsend expects the company to be profitable by year’s end. With respect to funding, USDA dollars that have been granted to Greater Growth for solar arrays and rainwater capture have defrayed some startup costs, but mostly it’s the Townsends on the hook for the operation. Long term, the company hopes to expand into other urban areas beyond its current location near Knoxville.

For all the serendipity that aquaponics has brought Greater Growth thus far, Townsend hardly considers it a match made in heaven. “I would warn your readers. This isn’t for the faint of heart,” he noted. “Technical assistance is limited, and is more likely to originate with sales people hawking equipment. They sell you something that looks good on an Excel spreadsheet, but the real world is not like that.”

“A lot of folks get this poetic beauty of aquaponics, of the fish and the plants and the ecosystem…  Day to day reality, you’re up to your elbows in fish poop all the time,” said Townsend. Narrow temperature tolerances, water chemistry issues, and the standard hazards of greenhouse production demand constant attention. “Maintenance is always a concern.  It’s a lot more complex than it looks.”

A few years in the aquaponics business have given Townsend a pragmatic view. “[People] think it’s the next greatest thing from a financial perspective or from a save-the-world perspective, and it’s really neither of those. It is not the answer to world hunger. It’s a tough business,” he says.

In the end, the novelty of the production system is far less important than economic reality. “It’s a great way to grow food very intensely [but] you’ve got to get an upsell.”

“If you don’t, you’re dead.”

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