SALSBURY – Most farmers rely on the soil to grow their crops.
Alan Lenton uses fish.
In a humid high-tunnel greenhouse nestled between pastures north of Salisbury, the Ohio transplant uses nutrients naturally produced from tilapia to grow leafy greens and other plants – all without soil.
“You don’t really need a tractor. You don’t have to grow anything from the land, “Lanton said. “You do everything above the ground and you can do it sustainably and you can do it much faster than (traditional) agriculture.”
The new company is called Evergrowing Aquaponics and Lanton plans to introduce its fish products to Salisbury Farmer’s Market and other local grocery stores.
Aquaponics is a food production system that combines aquaculture (breeding aquatic animals) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water). In the Lanton system, more than a dozen tilapia swim in
oxygen tank. The water from the tank, which contains ammonia-rich fish waste, is pumped through a biofilter. The bacteria in the filter convert ammonia into nitrates. The water is then filtered into a plant tank, where the roots of the floating plants absorb nitrates.
In essence, fish waste is turned into plant food. No fertilizer is needed.
The clean water is then pumped back into the aquarium and the cycle begins again. This is a closed system, which means less water is lost.
“It uses about 90% less water than traditional agriculture,” Lenton said.
The whole system is about 20 feet long, which is relatively small for commercial purposes. However, Lanton said he has the ability to grow 150 lettuces at a time. It only takes six weeks to grow a lettuce head from seed. He also experimented with growing a few corn stalks, peppers and moringa seeds.
Lanton will eventually pick up the tilapia. While some may consider farm-raised fish to be a stigma, Lanton said he likes to know exactly what tilapia were raised in and what they were fed.
Now an aquaponics expert, Lanton remembers how alien the food system seemed to him in the beginning.
“I asked myself, what kind of sorcery is this?” Lanton said.
Lanton learned about aquaponics about a decade ago during a trip to visit Growing Power in Milwaukee. Founded by Will Allen, Growing Power was a non-profit farm that became a model for urban agriculture before being disbanded in 2017.
“I visited (Allen’s) farm in the middle of winter,” Lanton said. “It was about 30 degrees. I went into a greenhouse like this and was just mesmerized by all the greenery that was being grown. I was like, “Yeah, I want to create one of them.”
But Lanton’s dream remained dormant for several years. At the time, he was moving from Ohio to North Carolina to study at Charlotte Law School. He now works full time in banking and lives in Charlotte.
Four years ago, Lanton was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Commonly called MS, it is a chronic condition that affects the brain and spinal cord, which make up the central nervous system. For Lanton, this means headaches, bouts of fatigue and occasional brain fog.
Stress can worsen MS, so last year Lanton decided to work to create his own aquaponics system.
“My neurologist told me I needed to get into a less stressful environment,” Lanton said.
Maintaining an aquaponics system is reassuring for Lanton.
“My colleagues, all they care about is the next time they eat,” Lanton said.
Several friends traveled to Rowan County from outside the state to help him build the greenhouse with a high tunnel, a feat accomplished in just two days.
“It was an army of people,” Lanton said.
Lanton and his wife, Selina, built the aquaponics system inside. They also receive guidance from aquaponics guru Sam Fleming, director of the nonprofit organization 100 Gardens and advocate for STEM aquaponics training at schools and correctional facilities in the Charlotte area.
Lanton operates the system largely from his home near Charlotte and visits the greenhouse once or twice a week. A monitor that sends data to his phone helps him monitor the water temperature, and an automatic fish feeder distributes food to the tilapia three times a day.
While Evergrowing Aquaponics is in its infancy as a company – Lanton cites several dozen Romaine lettuce heads that are currently growing as his “proof of concept” – he has big plans for the business in the future. Lanton aims to eventually build a larger system in East Spencer that can produce 1,000 lettuces a week.