The system at Robb’s Farm was the first endeavor by Trifecta Ecosystems to create a large scale aquaponics system. It was the fourth system we ever built. And that includes the apartment system in Boston, and it was a grow area 7x bigger than any system we had previously constructed or farmed. It was a large step for the ‘fish boys’ as Robb used to call us, and our first attempt at going from backyard market gardeners to actual commercial farming. Before we get into the specifics of the venture let’s take a quick look at the journey that got us here.
Buoyed by the success of the backyard system and the fact that we could make money growing food for others, we were looking to springboard that into an actual business. We approached a handful of farmers in town and Robb Armando of Robb’s farm was enthusiastic at the prospect and had an excess of land he wasn’t currently using. Robb also used to be in the greenhouse business himself in the 70’s and still had a few dismantled greenhouses on his property. The deal was simple, if we helped him build a greenhouse for his animals to be housed in during the winter months then he’d help us build a greenhouse for our system and all we had to pay for was the plastic.
Robb was beyond generous with his time, his knowledge and most of all his land as Trifecta was deficient in all three from the start. He also taught us what every fourth generation farmer like him has ingrained into his bones; reuse, repurpose, restore and you can save a lot of money. You won’t save time, but at this point in the business the founders had time in spades and money was at a premium. They bootstrapped the capital costs of this new system from the profits of the 338 Foote Rd system, but the costs were quickly piling up so we fell right into Robb’s mindset.
Every single part of the greenhouse besides the greenhouse film was secondhand and free. If it wasn’t for Robb, his ability to macgyver, and his generosity with his second hand things, we never would have been able to afford that endeavor. The amount of times we’d hit a stumble in our build and he’d go “Hang on I think I got something in the barn or the hay loft you could use” and low and behold he’d come out with some old thing from 20 years ago that would solve our hangup and cost us nothing were too many to keep track of.
With a helping hand from Robb, we were able to build a greenhouse and the aquaponics system from scratch in just under three months.We did everything by hand, including leveling and grading the site and bringing in over 6 dumptruck loads of sand to spread out evenly over the site! The greenhouse was constructed with four lanes, and each lane was 2 inches shorter than the lane next to it.
By doing this we were able to use gravity to flow water through the entirety of the system and only had to use one pump to bring the water from the lowest point at the end of the last raft bed to the highest point the fish tank. This saved us a bunch of money in ongoing electricity and equipment costs. It was back-breaking work, but the result was well worth the effort and money saved.
Despite running into a couple issues with the plumbing, we had the system running by the end of September. They would spend the next few months addressing some leaks but that didn’t stop us from churning out produce.
In typical fashion, we launched a new CSA off a new system for the upcoming winter season. We definitely do not recommend starting a CSA on a system you don’t know the production capacity for. However, our naivete ended up working in our favor. Once again we had the only CSA all winter long. Always filled with fresh produce being harvested same day as delivery. Despite the short winter days, we were still able to churn out a ton of produce from this system.
The experience also taught us some hard-earned lessons. We were not adequately preparing to handle disease and pest infestations at Robb’s at the onset. That March we lost ¾ of our crops to an aphid infestation. We learned the hard way the value in having properly implemented integrated pest management systems. We also lost some of our early basils to downy mildew and some of our early lettuce to powdery mildew. Again we learned the hard way the value of preventative measures.
These are lessons many newcomers experience first hand. But it almost cost us the business early on as we were dependent on those plants for our income. Thankfully, we weren’t solely reliant on the farm for revenues. We were able to rely on other sources like classes, workshops, custom system design, system builds, and consulting to move through those rough periods early on at Robb’s.
We had three good seasons at Robb’s. However, our focus was shifting to feeding growing urban areas. We realized it was time to bring our first large-scale aquaponics system to an end. As we expand the business and services, we need a more diverse location for clients and customers. Finally, in the spring of 2016 we ended our experiment at Robb’s farm after one last winter season. This allowed us to dedicate our time and energy to planning, designing and building our new facility in Meriden, Connecticut.
We’ll always appreciate the start we got there. The lessons learned there we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. It was a sad day to shutdown the system to say the least. However, the result is exciting for us as a company.
The move is a result of increasing success year over year as a business. The desire grow the company and the impact. It’s taking another giant step in the direction of the end goal to create the City that Feeds Itself™.
We’re still a longs way off. However, as Robb always used to tell us ,”Did you took more steps forward today than you did yesterday? Then you’re on the right track. Just have to keep marching forward and then before you know it you’ll get there.”