Avid Gardener’s Aquaponics Hobby Evolves into Commercial and Educational Enterprise
August 23, 2016 | Vanessa Caceres
Aquaponics farms often amaze visitors with the symbiotic connection between aquaculture and hydroponics that results in picture-perfect produce. Yet many aquaponics operations focus solely on training and education. Gyo Greens in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, has a focus on both the business and educational realm, to further spread the message about the importance of eating locally and naturally.
Owner Helga Tan Fellows, who spent much of her career in engineering and manufacturing, began Gyo Greens after traveling frequently for her job and seeing aquaponics operations elsewhere. An avid gardener, she thought aquaponics could be a fun hobby—yet her husband said it would probably be a bigger undertaking than just a hobby.
The idea behind Gyo Greens (named for the Japanese word for fish, gyo) began in 2013, and the farm opened in 2014. The farm sits on an acre of land, and the aquaponics operation is in a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse with about 800 tilapia and koi fish in tanks. The farm employs two people full-time and three part-time. It also relies on a number of interns and volunteers from the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.
Since its beginning, Gyo Greens has had a close relationship with local chefs, and the farm now sells produce to 30 or so restaurants in the area. Chefs sometimes rely on what’s grown by Fellows and staff—one item that’s been a hit is edible flowers. “They can be hard for chefs to find, and even when they’re packaged, they don’t always look nice,” Fellows says. Gyo Green’s ability to grow fresh, vibrant edible flowers have made them a popular addition to local plates. Other times, chefs request certain items; because of Gyo Green’s smaller size and quick turnaround time of a couple of weeks, it can usually help meet those requests. Pea shoots, red vein sorrel, and microgreens are chef-chosen items that Gyo Greens often grows.
Sometimes, Gyo Greens staff will grow other items for their own enjoyment, such as tomatoes, and they’ll share the bounty. But that also means they have to let buyers know not to expect those items regularly.
There’s also the education hat that the folks at Gyo Greens must wear. Growing up around parents who were university professors, the farm’s educational role is important to Fellows. The farm regularly hosts students—they’ve had more than 800 visit so far and are on track for 1,000 students by year’s end—and local residents who are curious to learn how an aquaponics farm works. Often, it’s a completely new concept. Other times, visitors may be aware of hydroponics but not aquaponics.
Some children are even in awe just to see where food comes from in the first place, beyond the store shelves. “Some students don’t even believe it,” she says. Yet then they go home and encourage their parents to visit. That awe and enthusiasm helps to spread the word about why aquaponics is, increasingly, an environmentally sustainable way to grow healthy food around the globe, Fellows says.
Gyo Greens also participates in a weekly farmers’ market held at a nearby community center, and the farm opens to the public one Tuesday a week during most months of the year. Residents can come by and pick their own greens “live.”
The farm work is not without its challenges; because Gyo Greens grows seasonally in a relatively small space, it is limited by what or how much can be grown. “If Mother Nature is not kind, I don’t have production,” Fellows says. Sometimes, certain items may not have grown as planned, and Gyo Greens needs to inform the buyer.
Getting produce delivered in a timely fashion is also tricky, but Fellows says that is a challenge that all farm businesses face.
Fellows says that Gyo Greens breaks even financially, and any amount of leftover money is invested right back into the farm. “You have to be cautious to do this. You need all of the logistics in place,” Fellows says. She believes that the farm’s dual role as an education center and a for-profit business—versus just a training or education facility—means it’s extra important to keep everything working efficiently.
With an eye on grants, Fellows is considering in the future use of an electric car for deliveries that would sport the Gyo Greens logo; she’s also looking into grants to support the use of solar panels on the farm.
Fellows is passionate about her commitment to sharing with others why it’s important to eat healthy. “We grow, sell, and teach. We want to continue that and go beyond it,” she says.