It's late March 2013 in Maine. The ground outside is blanketed with snow from an unexpected spring snowstorm, and Tyler Gaudet '07 and Jackson McLeod keep looking outside while they are talking about the aquaponics greenhouse they're planning to build. They need the snow to melt and the ground to dry before they can start raising the structure that in two months will become one of the first commercial aquaponic farms in Maine. The wind outside picks up. The construction will have to wait for more temperate weather. For now, all they can do is talk about the project.
Talking about aquaponics is easy for them to do. They are obsessed with the science of aquaponics, food production, and the profound issues that surround modern agriculture.
Basically, aquaponics is Gaudet's passion. As Gaudet explains, "you have your fish tanks. You put your fish in, your feed in and the fish excrete waste. That waste flows from the fish tanks into a collection of bacteria, a rudimentary biodigester. The bacteria break down the fish waste into usable plant nutrients—nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium, magnesium—giving you nutrient-rich water. We pump that water over hydroponic beds. The plants remove the nutrients, and the filtered water flows back into the fish tanks. It's a closed-loop system."
McLeod adds, "That's what makes aquaponics more sustainable than some other food systems. We're combining aquaculture and hydroponics. If you had aquaculture, you'd have to feed those fish, and if you had hydroponics, you'd have to feed those plants. We're creating an ecosystem that allows for more sustainability. You get more output than other systems. You get your protein and your vegetable."
So that's aquaponics: feed your fish, bacteria turn the fish waste into plant nutrients, plants take in the nutrients and filter the water that is then sent back to the fish. Aquaculture plus hydroponics yields aquaponics, another food option for the modern eater searching for healthy, sustainable food sources as we move into the complex food future.
The conversation covers a lot of ground, from sustainability to the overfishing of our oceans, to the history of farming from 19th century Maine lobstermen to present day corn production. All the while they finish each other's sentences, quote studies on food production, and head off on relevant tangents. It's the type of conversation nurtured and modeled in the classrooms of Saint Michael's, spilling out into the world.
Gaudet and McLeod are business partners in a 5,000-squarefoot aquaponics greenhouse, aptly named Fluid Farms, which broke ground in April. But their food-production dream was born their first year at St. Mike's, in room 110 of Joyce Hall, where the high school friends were roommates.
First in Joyce Hall and then sophomore year in their Alumni Hall room, Gaudet bred frogs. While many college students were accessorizing their rooms with tapestries and posters of Salvador Dali paintings, Gaudet maintained a tank of tree frogs and poison dart frogs. He'd always had a curiosity for natural systems—how they operate, how they maintain symbiosis. Gaudet devoted hours to contemplating the lives inside the glass tanks, devising methods to get the frogs to mate or making sure their environment was stable.
On Friday afternoons when other students were crafting weekend plans, Gaudet and McLeod were at pet stores in Burlington, looking at reef tanks and searching out the perfect blend of feed to bring back to their dorm room. Though the frogs were Gaudet's venture, McLeod was also fascinated with the idea of natural systems and maintaining them in a controlled environment.
McLeod admits, though, that after two years at St. Mike's, he hadn't yet caught the agriculture bug. In addition to raising frogs, Gaudet was studying biology, cultivating his fascination with natural systems with the science faculty. McLeod, on the other hand, was majoring in engineering and couldn't see a future for himself in Gaudet's dorm room experiments. After his sophomore year, McLeod left the college and moved to Colorado to take a year off of school.
In Colorado, McLeod found himself unexpectedly thinking about farming, starting to see the connections between his health and the food he ate. Growing up in Maine, his parents raised vegetables in a large family garden, so it seemed natural to start gardening as a way to be healthy. In Colorado, he experimented with different crops in a backyard garden, and slowly, while still working on his engineering degree, the aspiration to make a living through food production began to take shape.
After a year in Colorado, McLeod moved back to Maine to finish his degree at the University of Maine at Orono and started trying his hands at bigger gardens on his father's land in Corinth, with the mission to grow the perfect piece of produce.
Meanwhile, Gaudet had finished his biology degree at Saint Michael's and had moved from raising frogs to building a smallscale aquaponics system in his Portland, Maine apartment. This small system yielded mostly heirloom tomatoes and serrano peppers, but he was more interested in the challenge of sustaining the health of the ecosystem he'd created. As a biologist by day, Gaudet loved the puzzle of building a natural system that best mimicked nature.
When McLeod completed his degree in engineering, he moved into an apartment a few miles from Gaudet in Portland, and they discovered that, unknowingly, they had been traveling similar career paths. Gaudet was fascinated with the biology of aquaponics, and McLeod was interested in growing the highest quality produce. They quickly realized they shared a common vision to start a commercial aquaponics farming operation. They began in an industrial warehouse in Portland, and then, in early 2013 when restaurant demand for their produce grew beyond the capability of that facility, they embarked on a Kickstarter campaign and raised $9,028, which was 180% of their goal. They bought a commercial greenhouse frame off Craigslist, and moved the entire operation 20 minutes north to North Yarmouth, Maine.
In late April, the early evening sun is so warm that it's hard to remember that only a few weeks ago, these fields were covered in snow. Addy, Gaudet's stately purebred boxer, is waiting at the gate of the North Yarmouth farmland. The land is quintessential New England pastoral, and is used by a few farming groups, and as Gaudet leads me to the greenhouse, we pass ducks, chickens, pigs, sheep, and a small pond.
In jeans and a t-shirt splotched with dirt, McLeod holds a level against a concrete footing. With the help of family and friends, they spent most of April removing an old dilapidated greenhouse and painstakingly leveling off the land with a plow attached to a four-wheeler so they could begin constructing their 110 x 20 foot greenhouse. McLeod stands and shakes my hand. "This is it," he says, grinning.
McLeod and Gaudet work in almost perfect synchronicity. McLeod, the engineer, is meticulous about getting the footings level so the greenhouse will be square. While he works at this problem, Gaudet, the biologist, has a lively conversation about produce with a friend, Alex, who has come by to help. They discuss how to grow white asparagus. Gaudet wonders aloud what he'd have to feed the fish in order to keep a crop of white asparagus healthy. Jackson's mind works at the puzzle of putting the greenhouse together; Tyler's mind works at the puzzle of the natural system they'll be maintaining once the house is complete.
Two weeks later, the entire skeleton of the greenhouse is erected. We stand in the empty structure, and Gaudet points out the real genius of McLeod's handiwork. "This structure is all Jack," he says.
The greenhouse frame, purchased sight unseen from Craigslist, had been sitting in the woods behind a house close to Portland for the past decade. The woman who owned it wasn't even sure if she had all the pieces. Realizing they could scrap the metal and break even on the deal if necessary, McLeod and Gaudet bought the structure, with no guarantee that they even had a full greenhouse, and hauled it to North Yarmouth. No instructional manual.
"That's what Jack does," Gaudet says. "He looked over what we bought and decided he could turn it into our what we needed. His engineering mind clicked in."
McLeod laughs, "I figured somehow it could all go together."
McLeod was partially right. He spent hours figuring out how the pieces fit and filled in the missing parts by hammering steel piping into custom-made pieces.
"The greenhouse only had half the beams for a truss system, so I built the other half," McLeod says.
This type of do-it-yourself mentality thrills both men, whose modus operandi is to figure out how they can build something efficiently for the least amount of cost.
The spring sun pours into the uncovered greenhouse skeleton. Gaudet says, "Aquaponics offers us never-ending problem-solving. Once this structure is built, we'll have to come up with feed scheduling for the different crops. We'll have to constantly test the water to see what nutrients we're sending to the plants. Make sure there's not too much humidity in the greenhouse. Be sure we're creating a multi-trophic system to raise our biodiversity."
Jackson considers what excites him as an engineer about the farming he's doing, and he refers back to his desire to yield the best possible produce.
"Also," he adds, "engineering to me is more of a way of living than it is a job I go to." In that way, he sees farming to be a practical application of his engineering degree. Engineering is about creative problem solving. The commercially young aquaponics model offers plenty of opportunities where this is concerned.
Late May rain works over the plastic skin covering the greenhouse. The structure that in our March discussion only existed in the minds of Tyler Gaudet and Jackson McLeod has now become realized. Gaudet shows me the plastic fish tanks where they'll raise the tilapia that today they're installing on concrete blocks. McLeod points out how they'll pump the water from the tanks to the plants. They're all smiles.
Standing inside the covered structure, our conversation veers from the science of farming an aquaponic greenhouse to the ethics behind this business venture. They're quick to point out that they're not doing this because they're localvore zealots or Slow Food Movement disciples. Aquaponics for them is a part of the larger diversity of food production we'll need as the planet's population increases and the climate changes.
"We don't take the stance that aquaponics is the right way to farm," Jackson says. "It's the model that most interests us. But we do like the ethics behind it. In the end, we're hoping to offer some solutions to the problems bubbling out of our food system right now, while we try to carve out a living."
The rain dies down, and we linger outside the greenhouse, talking about goals for the summer and plans for beyond their first growing season. Jackson explains that the next big learning curve is figuring out the realities of running a small business. Tyler talks about the future goal of building more greenhouses in new markets instead of trying to build and maintain one massive greenhouse. They both agree they'd love to make a full-time living from Fluid Farms.
It's October. "The summer was busy," Gaudet tells me. "Really busy." In the last four months, the greenhouse has sprung into production. There are lush heads of lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, and spinach set in hydroponic beds. There's a constant whir from the closed-loop water system.
"It's still a constant work in progress," Gaudet says. "We're always finding new tweaks to make. Last week, a circuit tripped, and Jack and I weren't here. Our oxygenator went down, and we lost 50 fish. It's another piece of the puzzle we need to solve." Gaudet is not daunted. He's not an idealist in over his head. Rather, instead of seeing what I see, a finished product in his functioning greenhouse, he sees what's really here: a living system that needs constant tending.
In their first growing season, the system started yielding so much produce right off that they didn't know what to do with it all. They sell kale, mixed greens, and spinach to three local restaurants, making deliveries in the back of Gaudet's Tacoma. The excess produce is delivered to the Preble Street Soup Kitchen in Portland.
"We're harvesting 450 heads of produce each week," Gaudet laughs. "The system is healthy."
Gaudet hands me a knife and tells me he needs to deliver 10 pounds of kale tonight to a restaurant specializing in wood-fired pizza. "Let's pick while we talk," he says.
We work at kale plants, tossing the waxy leaves into a plastic tote, and he tells me his phone is constantly ringing with people wanting to know about their system. He inspects a kale leaf before dropping it in the bucket. "The strangest thing," he says, "is that people just show up at the greenhouse unannounced."
"What do they want?" I ask.
"They just want to look at the system. We get reports from the neighbor that people wander around the farm when we're not here," he says. "We're going to have to start locking the gate and putting up signs."
"It's like Field of Dreams," I say. "If you build it..."
We both laugh.
After we've filled the tote, Gaudet takes two paper bags to fill with produce for me to take home. "Taste how meaty the spinach is," he says.
I try a leaf. It's surprisingly meaty.
He cuts Swiss chard and says, "I've been thinking a lot about this Gandhi quote lately: 'Action expresses priority.'" It's getting dark in the greenhouse, and the lone fluorescent light above their desk in the corner casts a soft glow on the plants. "That's what Jack and I are trying to do. We've spent so much time reading and talking about this project, now we're putting all our energy into action."