It seems almost impossible for us here to fathom. FRESH Farm Aquaponics (now Trifecta Ecosystens) turns four years old this this fall! It goes without saying that we’ve come a very long way. It is crazy to think back on our humble beginnings of Spencer and Kieran reading about chinampas and tinkering around in their Boston apartment with aquaponics in late 2011.
We are rapidly expanding our reach. There are new products and our offerings available with even more new products slated due for later this year. Not to mention new clients signing up for our services every month. It’s been a whirlwind of a journey! Albeit one that certainly is peppered with a multitude of mistakes and roadblocks. Each one we overcome and learn from our mistakes so that we grow everyday. Sigh of relief team! While the difficulty of creating a business and a career right out of school may be behind us, the challenges ahead are no less daunting. But first, let’s take a look at how we got to where we are today.
Roxbury-Crossing: September 2011 to September 2012
It started with a splash. Water was literally everywhere. Something happened while we were out. We came back to a soaked carpet, desk and bed. Luckily, the pump wasn’t able to completely empty the fish tank. The fish were stressed out, but alive. We screwed up somewhere. Only 24 hours into our aquaponics experiment we had our first failure.
Little did we know this would not be the last time we’d flood Spencer’s bedroom with awful smelling aquarium water. Our first of many litmus tests. With most things we would have given up on it the first time it caused us a minor headache. And this flood was far from minor. It took days for Spencer’s bed to dry completely, and the fish water definitely is not on the list of top ten smells for your bedroom. For whatever reason we were inspired to see this through. We were determined to take action and responsibility over the food we consumed. That inspiration and drive only grew as the failures began to give way to successes.
As many of our readers know, we got our start with aquaponics in our tiny apartment in Roxbury-Crossing, just outside Boston. At the time Kieran was going to Northeastern. He was working at a law-firm and finishing his final year in the pursuit of a political science degree (He’s putting that to real good use!). His best friend from home, Spencer Curry, moved in with him in September, having recently graduated from UVM with a double major in Latin and philosophy. Very practical Spencer! He decided to test the job market in Boston. Armed with his classics degree he set out to see what the world held for him. A few weeks later he learned the world held a retail job selling cosmetics. Needless to say we were quickly becoming frustrated with the options ahead of us. He and Kieran constantly on the lookout for something more engaging and fulfilling.
It was during these first few months that we began coming up with all sorts of ideas, inventions and products. We’d stay up brainstorming over a few brews about one crazy invention after another (inflatable water beds anyone?, double decker couches?). In classic youthful optimism we figured if we could invent some goofy thing that was all we needed to do to succeed. Then we’d be able to drag ourselves out of the rat race we were running in.
Enter the most unassuming book to radically change both of our lives. You see when we weren’t spending late nights brainstorming silly inventions we were becoming fascinated by the advanced ancient civilizations of Egypt, South America and various others throughout history. Soon we both began reading a book, 1491, by Charles C Mann, about the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. The book argues that the populations of the Americas were far bigger than conventionally thought. Especially those in Mexico and throughout Central and South America. Some were said to have surpassed the largest historical populations of Europe and China. While fascinating, how does this lead to aquaponic farming? Turns out a large focus of the book was on the advanced agricultural techniques these societies employed in order to feed these large civilizations.
One of the techniques that still intrigues us is farming via the use of chinampas. Chinampas are essentially very big compost piles that are dredged into a lake so there are pathways of water and land. The land raises the agricultural crops. Their roots hold the compost piles in place preventing the soil from sinking into the lake.
The waterways raise the fish, providing natural fertilizer source for the plants. The Aztecs of Tenochtitlan used chinampas in lake Texcoco and according to the book, this fed a urban population of over a million people. Well this sparked some interest and we begin google binge for all the information we could find on chinampas.
Very quickly into that binge we came across aquaponics, which is the modern name for what the Aztecs were doing with their chinampas. Aquaponics, for readers unfamiliar with the term, is the raising of fish and plants together in a sustainable ecosystem. It’s essentially a chinampa in a box, or a self-containing river-bed ecosystem.
To us this was awesome. Now we had a modern name for this, and we had a way of growing food now that met the goals we had for our food consumption. It provided a sustainable protein source, with the fish, and a sustainable produce source. Aquaponics uses up to 90% less water than traditional field agriculture all without needing the field, nor needing the harsh chemical fertilizers required with other soil-less growing techniques. Plus it took care of the actual growing of the plants for us. No weeding, no need to become a master gardener, no fertilizing. Plant it and wait and harvest. That seemed like something we could actually do.
Next day, Spencer was out in a blizzard taking the packed bus to the fish store buying supplies. He literally had to keep the fish pressed against his chest so they didn’t die from cold on the trip home. They survived the ride and by the evening we had a tank with fish pumping water into a Rubbermaid tub with holes in the bottom. Rudimentary is a fine way to start so long as it works.
The following day we had the flood and we would have many after. Despite our shortcomings in design however, the plants just kept growing and growing. We couldn’t believe it. No matter how many water changes, or floods the plants were getting enough from the system to thrive in their alley window. We had tomatoes trellised on the safety bars on our window (not in the best neighborhood back then). This gave us the desire to go for more.
In fact this small success really sparked a change in the way we were thinking. More than just supplementing our diet we really desired to see if we could feed ourselves using aquaponics. In September of 2012 we moved out of Boston and back to our Hometown, Glastonbury, CT. We had two goals for that next year, feed ourselves, and if we can do that, then we knew we’d like to figure out a way to make a living off of aquaponics. We built our first system in a space that takes up 72 square feet in Spencer’s side yard. At this time there were four of us trying to feed ourselves via aquaponics. By June of the following year, our system was producing so much food we didn’t know what to do.
We decided to start sharing our bounty with friends and family. This is when the magic really started happening. By the end of summer we had them hooked and many started asking us if they could tell friends about us and could they PAY US!! for it. It was so good they wanted as much as we could give them. This was music to our ears. We knew we wanted to make money doing this, but without a business background we really didn’t know how.
So we looked at other farms and their models and decided that we would set up a weekly delivery of produce to a test group of friends and family. We also set this up to go right through winter. With no experience and no idea how to calculate for winter growing rates we started with 8 “shares” or 8 deliveries every week. I’m happy to say that despite our ignorance and ineptitude, the aquaponics system churned along better than expected that winter and we were able to carry out our deliveries uninterrupted for the entire season despite a few real nasty storms! This was starting to not only make us money but also starting to get really fun. We were the only farm in town with fresh produce all winter!
That spring we were really ready to take the next step. We approached a local farmer and old acquaintance about renting space on his land to build a large-scale aquaponics greenhouse. This was a big undertaking. We had made back our investment on the greenhouse we made at Spencer’s house at this point. But this project was going to cost us at least ten thousand dollars.
It was around this time we decided that we couldn’t just keep failing forward, and plowing along blindly. We’d need to get help, find mentors or a resource where we could ask all our questions about entrepreneurship to. We had no spring board for any of the questions we had or the challenges we would face ahead as we tried to take aquaponics from passionate hobby to sustainable business. One that would provide a healthy and sustainable food source to our communities empower others to feed themselves like we had. But How?!
Using our network of family and friends we were able to at least get some contacts of business professionals. One of these contacts told us about what seemed like a magical place at the time. That magic lies at reSET, the Social Enterprise Trust. It was exactly what we were looking for.
They help entrepreneurs go from concepts to functioning enterprise, provide a team of mentors and service providers to help in any areas they lack, and provide a place where other entrepreneurs can’t work from before they can afford office space. It was just what we needed and just at the moment we needed it. We’ll continue our story and journey into reset next week in part two of this blog series. Stay tuned!