Local startup farm grows fish in a sustainable way
By Shelley A. Sackett, Correspondent
Colin Davis, co-founder of Salem’s Redemption Fish Company, has a history of merging his entrepreneurial spirit and interest in “sustainability” (the intersection of ecology, economics, politics and culture). The 30-year-old Trinity College graduate had already launched two start-ups when he and his roommate (and fellow Redemption Fish co-founder), Andy Davenport, decided it would be fun to raise fish in a sustainable way in the basement of their Cambridge apartment.
Davenport, 27, who met Davis through Craig’s List when seeking a roommate, has a background in biology and chemistry and worked at Biogen. By the time the eviction letter came from their landlord, their “hydrofarm” had over 10,000 trout. “I talked Andy out of his job and into starting a fish farm with me. Basically, this was a hobby that got horribly out of control,” Colin said with a chuckle as he pointed with pride to the 10,000 square feet of space that Redemption Fish Co. now occupies in Shetland Park in the space that housed another seafood farming enterprise in the 1970s.
Davis and Davenport’s goal is to run their plant like an ecosystem, using the least number of inputs for the maximal output. There is no compost waste. There is little fish waste, and there is little water waste. “We try to close the loop on everything we do,” Davis said.
The basic principle behind what they’re doing is called “aquaponics”, the marriage of aquaculture (growing fish) and hydroponics (growing plants in water). Davis’ enthusiasm is palpable as he explains the process in a nutshell:
First, they feed the fish. The fish fertilize the water. That fertilized water gets pumped up to a grow bed of clay balls that biologically filtrate the wastewater through a nitrification process. Then, they grow plants in the grow bed.
Aquaculture currently occupies the majority of floor space. Although there are huge vats growing tilapia, bass, brown trout and experimenting with Atlantic salmon, rainbow trout are the only fish they are currently commercially producing. In the wild, it takes 18 months to two years for a rainbow trout egg to reach “market weight” of one pound. Davis grows them in about 12 months.
A couple of months ago, Redemption Fish Co. started harvesting a few hundred of its first trout eggs and selling them to a handful of restaurants and through Farmers Markets.
The goal is to be producing 1,000 pounds of rainbow trout per week by the end of the summer and to distribute them locally.
“Not shipping them across the country is the way this is better than mass produced trout from one of the three mega farms in this country. We leave a smaller [carbon] footprint,” Davis said.
Hydroponics, the other part of the aquaponics equation, uses 5% of the amount of water growing plants in soil would, and the plants grow faster. “Growing plants this way actually saves waste water we’d otherwise have to dispose of,” Davis pointed out.
On the day of this visit, one grow bed had a three foot orange tree, tomatoes, lemon verbena and ghost peppers. They just harvested 20 pounds of basil, which Jean Louis Faber, owner of the Jean Louis Pasta Shop on Derby Street, took and turned into pesto. He also bought some of Fish Co.’s rainbow trout to use in his smoked trout ravioli.
“That’s the fun part about local small business. I can just wander in places and say, ‘I think what you’re doing is cool. Can we work together?’” said Davis. “There’s something really neat about being able to grow basil two blocks from where it’s turned into pesto, and the consumer can walk to the store. That doesn’t exist in urban areas in the United States anymore.”
Within five years, Davis estimates Redemption Fish Co. will produce 250,000 pounds of fish and the better part of one million pounds of produce yearly. Future expansion plans include large-scale hydroponic production; he also wants the company to help others start small hydroponic gardens for their own consumption.
Davis points out that it takes three gallons of water to produce one pound of trout and five pounds of vegetables. In dirt, one pound of broccoli alone uses 75 gallons of water, according to Davis. “Nature doesn’t have a concept of waste. We invented waste. Up until man, there was no such thing,” Davis said. “Resources in, resources out, this [aquaponics] is probably the single most efficient way you can possibly grow food for human consumption.”
Davis and Davenport closed their own loop on making their dream a reality through a fluke. Davis’ mother was telling her optometrist about her son’s interest in starting a fish farm. As luck would have it, her optometrist knew Peter Lappin (whose family owns Shetland Park), who had started Sea Plantations in the 1970s to raise fish and seafood for research and commercial consumption. The space was empty and still housed Sea Plantations’ equipment.
Davis got on the phone and called Lappin, who “forced me to read his book (‘Live Holding Systems’)” which chronicles Sea Plantations. Ultimately, Davis and Davenport were able to lease part of the 50,000 former Sea Plantations space from Bruce Poole, one of Lappin’s original partners who runs his environmental services firm in space adjacent to Redemption Fish Co.
“There are not a lot of people trying to start urban fish farms, and not a lot of other convenient things this space could be used for, so we were pretty lucky to run into this,” Davis said.
When Mayor Kim Driscoll (whose favorite fish dish is grilled salmon) recently welcomed Redemption Fish Co. to the Salem business community at a ribbon-cutting ceremony, she emphasized how excited she was that the company uses innovative and sustainable technologies to grow food. “This company’s products will offer a healthy and local option to Salem and the region’s restaurants and food suppliers, providing one more terrific ‘farm to table’ opportunity for customers and diners,” she told the Salem Gazette.
Although finding funding for a sustainable urban farm in a finite space remains Davis’ biggest challenge, he is as optimistic about the company’s future as Mayor Driscoll. “If we worked with every restaurant in Salem, we could feed thousands of people out of a tiny basement a quarter of a mile away,” he mused.