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Lisbon aquaponics farm is expanding faster than greenhouse lettuce

Photo / Maureen Milliken Trevor Kenkel, founder and CEO of Springworks aquaponics farm in Lisbon, is looking at an expansion that will add five more greenhouses by 2026.

By Maureen Milliken From Route 196, Springworks Farm in Lisbon looks like most farms in Maine this time of year — more brown than green, a closed farm stand by the road, a couple dusty pickup trucks in the dirt parking lot.

But looks can be deceiving. In the main greenhouse, not only does a variety of bright green lettuce stretch in long rows down the length of the room, but in a much darker adjacent room, talapia in different stages of growth swim energetically in a dozen large tanks. The farm doesn't shut down for the winter, and it's not slowing down for anything else, either.

Earlier this month the aquaponic farm that specializes in greens, announced expansion plans that will bring it to 500,000 square feet of greenhouse space by 2026. The project will take a few years, but the first step is already underway with a 40,000-square-foot greenhouse, the third at the farm, that's expected to be in use by next month and will triple the farm's output.

The expansion comes at the interesection of growing climate change awareness and the trend, which became a trend on steroids since the pandemic began, of consumers demanding locally grown food and grocers rethinking their distribution chains Springworks' aquaponics growing method is in perfect position to ride the wave. With aquaponics, nutrient-rich water from raising fish is pumped into the plants' growing beds. The plants not only use it to grow, but clean the water and return it to the fish. No chemicals are needed, unlike other systems, including hydroponics.

"We're our own ecosystem here," Trevor Kenkel, Springworks president and CEO said. Despite the environmental and growing advantages, there are only a handful of commercial aquaponics greenhouses in the United States. Springworks is the first, and largest, in New England.

"Since the pandemic it's just taken off," Kenkel said Tuesday he gave Mainebiz a tour of the farm. Much of the company's recent growth is because of pandemic-driven demand for local produce, particularly from Hannaford Supermarkets and Whole Foods, Springworks' two biggest customers.

"The pandemic emphasized that the need for a more resilient supply chain," he said. "In the event of a disruption, our supply chain is vunlerable, and people are realizing that." While COVID-19 drove that home for consumers, he said that severe weather, a food-borne illness outbreak, and anything else that disrupts the supply and distribution chain also makes it necessary to focus on what can be done locally.

Courtesy / Springworks A rendering shows the planned expansion at Springworks, in Lisbon. Route 196 is in the top right corner.

Expanding and expanding again

COVID-19 has led to a lot of new business for Springworks, but the planning for the expansion begain well before it started.

The new 40,000-square-foot greenhouse, developed by Priority Group, of Topsham, will triple the outbut of the farm's products — organic bibb, romaine, leaf lettuce, salad mix and other greens. It will also increase the amount of talapia the farm annually grows, which is now 60,000 pounds annually, opening new commercial markets.

The $4 million greenhouse expansion got a boost from a $300,000 Maine Technology Institute grant in August, part of the Maine Technology Asset Fund 2.5E, which supports projects that align well with the state’s 10-year strategic economic development plan and have significant economic impact, particularly in rural Maine.

The company employs about 20, and will add another 15 once the greenhouse is completed.

Kenkel, 26, boight the 168-acre property and started the company in 2013, when he was 19 and a student at Bowdoin. His entire education, the Montana native said, was structured around a career in aquaponics.

In 2017, the company secured $1.6 million in capital to build the second greenhouse, which was completed in 2018. After it opened in 2018, Springworks tripled its outpout. "We tripled our output in 2018, and now we're tripling it again," he said.

Four more greenhouses, which would bring the total square footage to 500,000, are planned between now and 2026.

While farming takes up a lot of square footage, and resources, the aquaponics greenhouse method can produce 20 times the product that a traditional farm does per acre. Not only do the greenhouses include the traditional "greenhouse" part, but also a propagation room, where the seedlings are grown. Racks of them are stacked high, and in the new greenhouse, the racks will go all the way up to near the top of the 24-foot ceiling.

Another room has six 15,000-gallon fish tanks for the tilpia, about 10 times the size of the tanks in the other greenhouse.

The system is a year-round growing enterprise and an environtmental pioneer. Aquaponics use 90-95% less water than traditional farming, it doesn't use synthetic pesticides. "It's a consistent product," Kenkel said. "It's fresh, it's clean, there isn't a lot of waste."

Hannaford, Whole Foods picking Springworks' lettuce

The freshness and consistency of the product not only makes it efficient to grow and sell, but also appealing to buyers.

The farm sells its greens to Whole Foods and Hannaford, as well as local restaurants, stores, and other outlets. The location, on Route 196 just east of downtown Lisbon Falls, is a convenient hub, close to Lewiston-Auburn, Portland and the Midcoast, as well as Interstate 95.

Currently, talapia is a small part of the farm's revenue stream. "At the core, we're a vegetable producer," Kenkel said. The focus continues to be important for the company, and to its customers, because 97% of the greens sold in Maine come from the West Coast. "Fish are a big part of what we do, but they're not a big product."

The fish exist to support the greens. The amount of fish that the farm grows are not enough for big wholesale customers, but too much for the local small market, and currently they're shipped to Harbor Fish in Portland to be sold.

But as the farm expands, it will need more fish to grow more greens. More fish means more ability to sell to wholesalers, and the farm is in talks with Hannaford to sell the filets in its stores.

Hannaford is already a big Springworks supporter. It began carrying the farm's lettuce in 2017, and quickly began selling it in all its Maine stores. With pandemic-driven supply chain distrupiton, Hannaford exanded Springworks' greens to its New York stores.

“Springworks checks every box when it comes to our lettuce supply needs and Zero Food Waste goals – starting with its aquaponics method for growing greener, more nutritious, and fresh produce,” said Mark Jewell, Hannaford produce category manager.

Jewell said that the Scarborough-based supermarket chain is also impressed by Springworks' "consistent quality and ingenuity."

Hannaford, like many store chains is looking for ways to reduce the costs of grocery distribution, as well as cut down on the climate effects of trucking lettuce thousands of miles. "These factors, combined with their exceptional food safety practices, year-round availability and proximity to our distribution centers made it an easy decision to choose Springworks over field-grown product that’s shipped across the country," Jewell said.

Whole Foods, too, sourced Springworks to stock loose-lettuce products in order to meet the immense consumer demand for organic lettuce in the Northeast after the pandemic hit.

Sierra Kenkel, Trevor's sister, is responsible for sales and marketing and said that as the farm grows, so will its customer base.

"We’re looking forward to conversations with other major northeast supermarket chains, as our new greenhouse will further increase our ability to grow great-tasting, nutrient-packed, certified organic lettuce – and in the future specialty greens and herbs – year-round right here in Maine," she said.

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