Inside the 90,000-square-foot old Rainbo Bread Factory in Lexington — tucked between West Sixth Brewing, artist studios and a community bike shop — is a farm capable of producing 120 pounds of lettuce, 10 pounds of herbs, 28 trays of microgreens and 100 pounds of fish every two weeks.
With help from Kentucky State University, FoodChain, a nonprofit focused on educating central Kentuckians on urban indoor agricultural food production, has launched the first commercially scaled indoor aquaponics system in the state.
“It’s a very fancy word for growing fish and plants together in a system where they share the same water,” Becca Self, executive director of FoodChain, said.
By mid-September, the public should be able to taste the Lexington-grown fish on a sandwich at the new Smithtown Seafood restaurant.
Self said people are starting to become more interested in the concept, so the organization is playing an important role in educating the public.
“Our overarching mission is reconnecting people with food,” she said.
“We feel we can do that best through education and demonstration of indoor sustainable food systems.”
But first, the founders of FoodChain needed to educate themselves — they needed to learn best practices in aquaponics and sustainable farming. And who better to teach them than experts from state universities?
Students and researchers from KSU contributed expertise related to aquaculture and aquaponics systems and the University of Kentucky contributed information on the sustainable agriculture side of the project.
Jim Tidwell, chairman of the Division of Aquaculture at KSU, and Mark Williams, a director in the sustainable agriculture program at UK, both serve on the board of FoodChain.
“Those two land grant universities don’t really collaborate a whole lot, but we’ve been sort of a neutral ground,” Self said.
KSU has been helping with the start up of FoodChain by designing the aquaponics system, advising the organization on which products work best and stocking the tanks with 65-100 fish once a month. The university’s next project is finding an efficient method of converting spent grain from West Sixth into fish food.
“It will close the loop even more,” Tidwell said. “We’ve just started to analyze the brewer’s grain so we know how much protein and those kinds of things it’s made up of.”
Self said Tidwell’s role as a technical adviser and the roles of Charlie Shultz and Thomas Delomas have been invaluable. She charged Shultz, a student who came from the world-class aquaculture school at the University of the Virgin Islands, with forging the relationship between KSU and FoodChain. Shultz has moved to Canada, but Delomas, who is starting as a graduate student at KSU this week, has dedicated a lot of volunteer time, too.
“It’s impossible to overstate the importance of having an amazing fish university 30 miles away,” Self said.
Tidwell said the relationship is “a win-win.”
Both Self and Tidwell said aquaponics is currently one of the hottest topics out there related to agriculture.
KSU was awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture just last week for aquaponics research, and Tidwell said the university’s relationship with FoodChain would complement the funding.
“There’s still quite a bit of research to do to figure out how feasible this is,” Tidwell said. “Will it take money? The answer is we don’t know yet. I think we’re doing the right thing by doing some good, basic research on these systems to see how much it will cost to operate and what kind of returns we’ll get.”
Self said the project is just a matter of being a responsible citizen. Aquaponic systems are not new. Developing communities with limited access to fresh water and substandard soil have attempted to create a sustainable production method for many years, so FoodChain’s work could potentially contribute to their livelihood.
“In the U.S., we’re used to thinking we have infinite resources, so you don’t go through all the trouble of trying to sustainably grow things indoors,” she said. “We’re trying to change that mindset.”
How it works
Self said aquaponics is an intrinsic concept — it’s an attempt to mimic nature as closely as possible.
There are six tanks of fish at the beginning of the system. The fish waste acts as a fertilizer and is filtered to long trays of plants floating on the water. Dish scrubs are used to filter the bacteria from the waste, which turns the waste into ammonium nitrate, the chemical compound found in commercial fertilizers. The water is then returned to the fish tank after it is filtered through the plants.
“You don’t need a master’s degree to understand that,” she said. “A little more than half of our tours have been kids, and most say, ‘Fish poop, we got it.’”
But Self said there are small details in the system that add to the shock value.
For example, because the farm is indoors, lighting is one of the most important components — and grow lights are expensive. Potentially, the lights could have come with a price tag of about $40,000, but they found a creative solution. FoodChain uses induction lighting, a method that excites the gas, which can cover about a 4-square-foot area. By putting the lights on movers, however, FoodChain was able to double the coverage of the light and cut the cost in half.
“We found it to give a better quality of life because it’s mimicking the sun rather than giving static light and shadow,” she said. “Every plant gets coverage.”
While Self is the talking head of the organization, Mims Russell is the real farmer. Russell, a 2012 graduate of UK’s Sustainable Agriculture Program, is in charge of maintaining the production, from selecting the fish from the KSU tanks to checking the roots on the plants.
“Mims gets everything done,” Self said.
So far, FoodChain has spent about $75,000 to get the system up and running. That includes all new electric, plumbing and a new entrance to the farm. While the organization hasn’t been awarded any massive federal grants, she said agricultural development funds have been instrumental, as well as the help of individual donors.
But when Smithtown Seafood opens within the next few weeks, funds will start flowing faster.
Self’s hope is that standing at the counter of Smithtown Seafood will feel like a produce commercial where a customer reaches for an orange at the grocery store and his arm extends to a Florida citrus grove.
“Really, it’s a larger mission of connecting people with their food,” Self said.
Only the kitchen stands between the fish tanks and the service counter at Smithtown Seafood — with the doors open, a customer could see the very tanks in which his or her food grows.
The workers at FoodChain will chill kill the fish by dropping them in a bucket of ice water. Then they’ll be carried to the kitchen less than 10 feet away to be processed and prepared.
Ouita Michel is the chef and owner of Smithtown Seafood and many other farm-to-table restaurants around the region, including Wallace Station, Holly Hill Inn and the Windy Corner Market. She also sits on the board of FoodChain.
Michel has just passed the $1 million mark in buying Kentucky Proud products, so the restaurant’s relationship with FoodChain makes sense.
“We make everything on the menu from scratch, and whenever possible, with locally raised ingredients,” Michel said.
FoodChain’s tilapia won’t be the only fish on the menu — the restaurant will also serve wild-caught catfish from the St. Johns River in Florida, head-on Canaveral white shrimp and royal red shrimp, fresh oysters and “other fresh fish that is sustainably raised or responsibly farmed from U.S. or Kentucky sources.”
The fish will be available to take home by the pound, or the kitchen staff will prepare the fish for take-out or delivery to the seating area at West Sixth.
West Sixth does not serve food and Smithtown Seafood will not serve beer. A large six-foot entrance is currently under construction to open up the hallway connecting the two, and owners envision customers to visit between the businesses.
“Our menu is both familiar and creative, emphasizing local foods and old-fashioned Kentucky recipes,” Michel said.
Beer cheese made from West Sixth Smithtown Brown Beer, wild-caught fried catfish, fish tacos and African-style tilapia will be menu staples.
Michel said food will be reasonably priced, and every dollar spent at Smithtown Seafood will in part benefit FoodChain.
“In all honesty she’s paying way more than wholesale because she’s excited about our mission as much as anyone,” Self said.
The nonprofit-to-restaurant transaction was included in the original 501(c) application — FoodChain would not be able to educate other farmers and buyers about their options without realistic prices.
“We can’t say, ‘You too can use these methods, but we’re not sure if you can cover the operating costs,’” Self said.
FoodChain’s mission is to “demonstrate indoor food production and preparation in the heart of Lexington’s urban core and provide education via hands-on training opportunities for area youth and adults.”
To achieve that goal, FoodChain has reached out to schools and science fairs. The group has visited with Fayette County schools, but has not yet made it to Franklin County or Frankfort schools.
“We’d love to connect with as many of them as possible, it’s just a matter of time,” Self said. “We’re certainly very open to it.”
KSU has brought the concept into the classrooms in the past. The university once had a full-time aquaponics educator who worked with middle schools and high schools across the state, but the position no longer exists.
“That’s part of our mission, not just to do research on campus but to try to take that information and get it out to the public,” Tidwell said.
Together, KSU and FoodChain are simply encouraging people to think about resources through a different lens.
“Even though we’re in the heart of downtown Lexington, there’s a lot available for food production and processing,” Self said. “It just requires some creative thinking.”