Farm-to-Table: Using fish to grow food

Feb 25, 2020

Donuts, chicken wings and fish frys are certainly popular in Buffalo, but residents also have an appetite for a variety of locally grown healthy foods. In WBFO's Farm-to-Table series, we meet entrepreneurs in the growing industry, including a unique farm without fields that relies on fish for growing leafy greens and herbs.


In renovated warehouse space inside the 90-year-old Niagara Frontier Food Terminal on Clinton Street at Bailey Avenue in Buffalo, a new kind of farm is taking root.

Gro-Op's produces a variety of leafy greens and herbs for local consumers
Credit Chris Caya/WBFO News

"Ideally, we're trying to make a system that can create all the food you would need for a diet in a contained system," said Mike Zak, the co-founder of Gro-0p, an "aquaponic vertical farm."

At the entrance is a decontamination room where visitors get a white tyvek suit to wear over their street clothes.
    
"It's really important that we don't bring any fungus or mold spores into our facility because that could infect our crops," Zak said.   

Inside, he says, everything—walls, floors and equipment—get sterilized regularly. A variety of leafy greens, lettuces and herbs grow on large racks outfitted with LED grow lights and rows of shallow plastic channels, or gutters.

Tubes with control valves keep nutrient filled water flowing through special "gutters" to grow plants
Credit Chris Caya/WBFO News

"They have roughly six NFT gutters on each level, which is Nutrient Film Technique. And what that means is the roots are suspended into these gutters. There's no soil in it. It's just the aquaponic water that's running over the roots and the plants are soaking up that nutrient filled water," Zak explained.  

Zak, 35, says plants in soil use a lot of energy growing roots to find the food and water they need.
    
"Since we have all of that available for them at all times, they don't have to put much into their roots at all. They put it all into their upper parts, their leaves, flowers and fruit," Zak said.  

With lights on 24/7, plants grow quickly. He says basil alone produces about 160 pounds of leaves each week.

"We typically harvest off the same plant for two months. So we'll cut it in half and it'll grow back in time to harvest the same week," Zak said.

Gro-Op's closed-loop system starts in the Aqua Culture Room where fish are raised in large tanks connected to the grow room
Credit Chris Caya/WBFO News

It's a closed-loop system that starts in the "Aqua Culture Room." Max Myers, Gro-op's "fish expert," is raising more than 100 tilapia, goldfish, and koi in six large tanks.  
    
"The whole premise of an aquaponics system is to utilize the fish waste and turn it into something that our plants and our grow space can use," Myers said.

The fish water, Myers says, drains into a settling tank - passes through a mechanical filter and then into a biological filter-tank where ammonia in the water is transformed into nitrates before flowing into a mixing tank. 

Max Myers is Gro-Op's "fish expert"
Credit Chris Caya/WBFO News

"So a portion of that water is returned to the fish. And then another portion of that water is fed out to our grow rooms through our plants, they uptake those nutrients, and then that water is sent back into that mixing tank. And then the loop continues," Myers said.   

Zak says they're simply recreating a natural ecosystem. It's all organic and uses less water and nutrients than conventional farming.     
    
"Another great thing about what we're doing here at Gro-op is that we're a worker-owned cooperative. That means that all of our workers are equal owners and we run our business through democracy. Each of us gets to vote on how we run the business. We share in the profits based on how many hours worked and experience," Zak said.  

The company now has four worker-owners and sells year-round mainly to local restaurants. Gro-Op started in 2014 and moved to its larger Food Terminal space just over a year ago thanks to a $100,000 award from Ignite Buffalo. Zak says Gro-op's  mission includes eliminating local food deserts and starting a training program for at-risk youth who could become worker-owners.

Mike Zak says one advantage to aquaponic vertical farming is being able to work standing up, not bent over plants in a field
Credit Chris Caya/WBFO News

"What we'd like to do is show the youth in the city here that this is a viable option for your career. But also for you to own a part of it. Because I think people are much more interested in doing something if they know that they're going to be able to benefit greatly from it, in the long run," Zak said.  
    
The company's other goals, he says, include developing a line of prepared foods and selling Gro-op's farm-raised fish.