When Greg Marlett was 13, he helped an elderly neighbor start her lawnmower. As a thank you, she gave him cuttings from coleus plants in her garden and told him to put them in water.
Within a few days, the plants developed roots. Marlett planted them on the outside of his house and taught his friends how to grow them too.
“Pretty soon every home in the neighborhood had coleus wrapped around them,” he said.
The experience ignited a fascination in Marlett that led to his career as an environmental educator for the Morgan County Soil and Water Conservation District and to his latest endeavor as the owner of Fresh Way Farm, an aquaponics business in Martinsville, Indiana.
The farm consists of a commercial aquaponic farm production and an education and outreach program for local schools.
Aquaponic farming differs from the better-known hydroponic farming in that it supports an entire ecosystem. In hydroponic farming, food must be added to the water for the plants. Aquaponic farming combines raising aquatic life, such as fish, snails or frogs, with growing plants.
A typical system will have a tank containing the aquatic animals connected to grow beds for the plants. The waste water from the animals filters into the grow beds, where bacteria consume ammonia and nitrites and produce nitrates, which nourish the plants. The clean water is recirculated into the animal tank.
Aquaponics uses about 2% of the water that conventional growing methods use, losing water only through evaporation and plant uptake. In addition to saving water, the method results in a faster growing time for plants.
“You’re delivering the nutrients directly to the roots, so the plant doesn’t have to expend the energy underground, and that energy goes up into the plant. It takes us about half the time to develop the plant,” Marlett said.
Besides being a totally organic system, aquaponic farming takes up less room and costs less than conventional farming. It has the added benefit of not producing any chemical runoff, as traditional farming does, which could potentially harm fresh water ecosystems in rivers and lakes and also ground water.
“Right now, in this part of Indiana we don’t have a water problem,” Marlett said. “We aren’t fist fighting over water, but there are large portions of the world that are, and we will have to deal with it at some point. I won’t be here for that, but if these methods save water and use it over and over again, and still produce tons of healthy food, that’s a win.”
Fresh Way Farms has helped set up aquaponic systems in three Morgan county schools — Mooresville High School, Monrovia High School and Green Township Elementary School. A fourth aquaponic system is being installed in Martinsville High School this semester.
Each is a properly working commercial system that provides students with a broader view of agriculture and potential job training.
Brittani Bentley is associate director for the Community Foundation of Morgan County, which gave Fresh Way Farms a grant to build the four aquaponic systems.
“Morgan County is very rural, and with aquaponic systems being the new trend and a more environmentally friendly way of farming, we wanted to make sure students had a resource to not only do what they used to do in the past to farm, but actually give them a future and education in what farming would look like,” Bentley said.
Green Township is an agriculture-based school where the first-graders are in charge of the aquaponic system. They must feed the fish and take care of the crops.
“Earlier this week, they got to taste a couple of things we grew — green onions and kale,” said Trenna Dodge, who teaches one of the two first-grade classes at the school. “They were really excited and couldn’t believe it tasted that good.”
Green Township principal Paul Spahr said he’s found many students have no idea where their food comes from.
“We really want the kids to understand that you don’t go to the store and it’s just a piece of beef and that’s how it came to you,” he said. “We want to show the kids that there’s a lot of work involved.”
Currently, the vegetables and grasses produced by the first-graders are being fed to chickens cared for by the kindergarteners. However, once all the production kinks have been worked out and state health and safety guidelines have been met, the goal is to be able to use the lettuce and produce in the school cafeteria.
Monrovia High School is already putting its produce to use by donating it to the town’s food pantry.
“I would love to see an aquaponic system in every school and be more of a farm-to-school table,” Bentley said. “It’s better for them, it doesn’t have the preservatives and the pesticides and everything like that the kids get now in some of their vegetables because they are frozen and processed.”
Besides the educational and nutrition aspects of the aquaponic system, there are also potential economic and job opportunities. Bentley said the foundation encourages opportunities outside the traditional college path that get students more involved in the trades, farming, and other careers that help stimulate the local economy.
“Agriculture is a huge industry, and we want to open the kids’ minds to all the possibilities,” he said. “It’s getting harder and harder for families to have land, so to be able to continue in an agriculture business, we need to give them more options than just being a farmer.”
Marlett is continuing to grow the commercial side of Fresh Way Farms and has a partnership with a local restaurant to buy his produce. He also sells his plants and vegetables at the Martinsville farmers market, and he is planning on launching a larger wholesale operation within the next few years.
Meanwhile, in every aquaponic system Marlett has currently in operation, there are coleus for Sookie.
“I owe it to her to spread it on,” he said.