Building an 'Ecosystems approach'

Features - Cover Story

Some in traditional horticulture circles dismiss aquaponics as child’s play, but a young entrepreneur with a passion for sustainability is changing minds and converting customers in a local food movement hotbed.

July 20, 2021

Some would say that the state of Maine represents a sort of regional union of the commercial fisheries industry and the local food movement, so it’s rather fitting that aquaponic lettuce producer Springworks Farm (Lisbon, Maine) calls the Pine Tree State home. A recent expansion took the operation to 58,000 square feet of greenhouse space, allowing Springworks to meet the growing demand for its soil, chemical and synthetic fertilizer-free leafy green goods.

Springworks Farm is a certified organic operation that currently has four product lines distributed among 184 Hannaford Supermarkets retail grocery outlets throughout Maine and Massachusetts, as well as Whole Food stores throughout their North Atlantic region. All from a cutting-edge grow system that leverages tilapia and the free, organic fertilizer they create to pump out nutrient and flavor-packed lettuce crops 30% faster than traditional soil grows with 95% less freshwater consumption.

But, before we dive into the details of Kenkel and Co.’s unique ecosystems approach to commercial scale greenhouse aquaponics, it’s imperative that we understand the journey that brought Springworks Farm to be in the first place.

Best laid plans

While other kids were trading baseball cards and playing X-Box, 12-year-old Trevor Kenkel was growing produce for his family and neighbors in Montana, starting out in his parent’s garage with a DIY setup. The young man was inspired to experiment with different growing styles after realizing runoff from a nearby farm was decimating the frog and fish population in a stream near his parent’s property that he liked to fish. There has to be a better way, the young man thought.

Once the family garage space had been maxed out, Trevor would build his first greenhouse and start experimenting with hydroponic and aquaponic production throughout his early high school years. Eventually, before he even obtained his diploma he was selling freshly grown produce to local chefs and restaurants. Kenkel may not have realized it at the time, but this period would serve as the solid foundation that the Springworks Farm operation today is built upon.

Springwork's partnership with the Hannaford Bros. retail network has enabled continued expansion in Lisbon.

Here is where Kenkel’s story takes a bit of a veer.

For as ag-passionate as he was at the time, indoor farming wasn’t Kenkel’s only hobby growing up. Like many young men his age, the thrill of competing on the gridiron and those shiny Friday Night Lights called out to him like a left behind picnic basket calls out to a Montana grizzly bear. And just like his wildly successful early ag exploits, on the football field Kenkel proved more than an adept defensive back – securing a scholarship to play college football at Bowdoin College, a well-known liberal arts institution in Brunswick, Maine, where Trevor planned to study biology so that he could take his plant passion even deeper.

“My senior year I ended up having a really traumatic head injury and I ended up having to take off the last semester, because the symptoms just didn’t want to go away,” Kenkel, who had suffered concussions that were more minor in nature prior to this, recalls. This time though, there was nothing minor about this concussion: Kenkel was having trouble holding conversations and reading printed words, even weeks and months after suffering the injury.

College football now pretty much out of the equation, Kenkel took a gap year and began commuting to Massachusetts General Hospital from his families’ home in Montana to get treatment in their renowned head trauma program. His sister Sierra, now Springworks Farm’s Vice President, at the time was enrolled at nearby Endicott College (Beverly, Massachusetts), so he wasn’t completely on his own in the vast Northeast.

“At the time I think there were still a lot of misconceptions about how to treat concussions that are just now starting to be corrected, like how we’re learning now that the whole sit in a dark room/sensory deprivation style of treatment might not be the best way to treat head trauma,” Kenkel says, noting the frequent flights from Montana to the East Coast were probably not good for his condition at the time, either.

Finally though, after months of treatment his symptoms slowly started to ease (at first he could only concentrate in 10-15 minute spurts before debilitating headaches would set in), and Kenkel enrolled at Bowdoin and “started working on the aquaponics idea more and more, using my greenhouse in Montana as kind of the model,” he says.

Once they secured the site that Springworks Farm sits on today — a former outdoor produce farm and local BMX racetrack — Kenkel worked tirelessly to build his first 6,000 square foot aquaponics greenhouse throughout his freshman and sophomore years, balancing a full load of classes with running the greenhouse and being on site as much as possible. Another gap year, this time between his junior and senior years of college, allowed the founder to have more time to focus on getting a second greenhouse up and running.

Having already been through the traumatic experience of his severe concussion and the ensuing recovery and rehabilitation — which athletes often describe as being more mentally and physically taxing than the injury itself, time was of the essence for Kenkel.

“I talk with folks all the time that have had similar head injuries, the amount of deviation from normal everyday life when something like that happens to you, it is just so abrupt and significant,” he says. “It really showed me how fast things can change in life, and how limited our time really is. Growing up I knew I wanted to do something like this. But it was always, go to school, pay your dues, maybe get a consulting gig someday, and then maybe someday we’ll do the greenhouse thing.

“I would say that — and I didn’t really know this at the time but — it (head injury) kind of fundamentally changed the course of my life.”

Local Lisbon, Maine, community members shared images on social media after the farm made donations to help out its neighbors.

Taking an ecosystems approach

His head trauma troubles well in the rearview today, Kenkel is authoring the instruction manual (because one simply does not exist) on commercial-scale greenhouse aquaponic production at Springworks Farm. Having outgrown the farm’s previous two greenhouse footprint, Kenkel and Co. recently cut the ribbon on the operation’s third and most impressive production greenhouse. This 27,000 square foot facility is scheduled to have its first crops planted on August 1.

He describes the growing philosophy at Springworks Farm as an “ecosystems approach” since in aquaponics more than any other production system, everything must work in complete unison to grow a successful crop. The tilapia — which are all different ages and life stages when they make their way into the farm’s giant tanks — provide all the nutrients that the crops need to grow, all right there in the water where the roots can constantly uptake them, as long as the ten water parameters (things like pH and PPM) that Kenkel continuously monitors and adjusts are kept in harmonious balance.

The idea behind aquaponics is twofold, according to Kenkel. Of course there are the benefits of a constant supply of fresh, free and naturally derived fertilizer. But it’s also a play to limit plant stress throughout the growing cycle as much as possible, which in turn changes the plant’s root structure and allows for more nutrient uptake compared to soil growing, Kenkel believes.

“And something that is nutrient dense is probably tastier too, right?” the unassuming Kenkel adds. “Then there’s the beneficial fungi and beneficial bacteria that the system produces, too. You can see the fungal growth on the roots, and it’s still kind of incredible to me that when you compare us to soil farming, our plants have every single nutrient they need right below them in the water, readily available for uptake.”

Selecting indoor lettuce varieties that are robustly resistant to downy and powdery mildew, as well as deploying a combination organic and beneficial insect (lace wings and midges primarily) leaning IPM approach, have both proven crucial in allowing Springworks Farm to scale up and serve its rapidly expanding customer base.

It’s a production system that is often met with skepticism in traditional horticulture circles — especially when attempting to scale it commercially — but Springworks Farm is proving the doubters wrong at every single crop turn.

Springworks still maintains a near-century old farm stand at the entrance of the farm.

Pandemic pivot

Like most green industry operations, the COVID-19 pandemic proved the opportune time for Springworks Farm to pivot slightly away from its food service business (they’re still serving the segment, just not as robustly as pre-COVID) and concentrate on its retail, consumer-facing segment.

“Almost overnight it just seemed like the restaurants here locally all had to close up shop and the food retail side just blew up,” Kenkel says. “With our Whole Foods partnership, we were already playing in that retail lettuce package environment but things got really got exciting after Hannaford took off.”

The team had already been kicking around the prospect of expanding in Lisbon with another greenhouse build in the months prior to the pandemic hitting, but just as his concussion battle had accelerated his timeline to found the farm, a sudden increase in demand from the farm’s biggest retail partner, Hannaford Bros. (Scarborough, Maine) pushed Kenkel and Co. to get the ball rolling. The Northeast retail giant was basically consuming all of the operations products through its distribution network. It was quite the departure from how the two sides first met.

“We started out just doing direct store delivery, which was basically myself and Sierra in a van delivering the products to five of their stores,” he says. “And then just gradually coming up through their local grower program, and showing that we could take on more and more (demand).”

The grocery chain has proven the perfect partner to help Springworks Farm grow its footprint in Lisbon. CEO Mike Vail has taken a personal interest in the operation, visiting multiple times to make sure he understands all of the nuances and ecological benefits that come along with aquaponic lettuce.

“We’re investing in them and at the same time they are also investing in us,” Sierra Kenkel shares. “Our business relationships are so important, and even if you’re able to produce a quality product at a reasonable price, it’s still a process that just takes time. A lot of these food retail folks have supply relationships that go back decades, that you as a new supplier are asking them to break. So, it’s not like we can just waltz in one day one and say ‘Alright this price is competitive and this lettuce is good, let’s do this!’”

But that’s almost exactly what happened at Hannaford. After a few years of dealing with Springworks Farm and learning about the operation, Hannaford was hooked. A perfect storm of shipping problems with their incumbent suppliers combined with ready availability of the lettuce they needed at a local, organic greenhouse less than 50 miles from their Scarborough distribution center inspired the Hannaford produce team to name Trevor and Sierra their exclusive supplier of organic green leaf lettuce.

Trevor Kenkel cuts the ribbon on Springwork's 40,000 sq. ft. expansion, which features 27,000 sq. ft. of growing space.

Flexible system

Springworks Farm’s management team all agree that the flexibility that Kenkel’s custom-designed, closed-loop aquaponic grow system affords the operation is hands down the most important attribute when it comes to making the relatively niche growing style work for them.

“With a system like this we can grow all kinds of different products, we have the flexibility to work alongside of our customers and produce something that we feel is uniquely positioned to alleviate an issue or bottleneck that they have,” Trevor Kenkel says.

Vice President Sierra Kenkel shares a recent example of exactly what her brother is talking about.

“When we initially got on the shelves at Hannaford, we had a product called our Baby Romaine pouch that just started soaring in terms of sales,” she recalls. “It was in the ballpark of 70% growth with that one product in a three-month span, and Hannaford decided that they wanted to bring it into both of their [distribution centers], so I had a meeting with our growing team and just said, ‘Hey, we need to shift more resources to this,’ because we could see the trend increasing and continuing to do so. With our proprietary system, we have the flexibility to shift our product mix in a matter of weeks for our customers.”

Other potential crop add-ons will be investigated going forward at Springworks Farm, with the same care and attention to detail as facility expansion. Kenkel prefers to do a full life cycle analysis of any prospective crop before he devotes one of his greenhouses to it.

“When you chase a new opportunity, there is also the chance that you can kind of splinter your focus and end up not being able to produce the quality and consistency,” Trevor Kenkel says. “We started with three product lines, and now we’re adding to that, but we’re going to add gradually. And make sure we have the volume to support it while delivering the quality our customers expect. Over time there is so much opportunity, but we have to embrace it in a way that is intentional, adds value, and meets the incredibly high standards we’ve set for ourselves and our products.”