“The apartment smells a little fishier than normal,” Tyler’s wife said to him one day. He has been growing fish in large tanks in the spare bedroom of their East End apartment. A tilapia had jumped out and flopped under the radiator. “Just the fact that my apartment has a normal fish smell… I knew it was time to move the system out.” And he did.
With business partner and fellow dreamer, Jackson, the fish are now in their third home: a greenhouse in Falmouth. Jackson, a mechanical engineer, and Tyler, a fish biologist, have matched their imaginations and wits to create a production system that grows both fish and vegetables. Hailed as a sustainable, nearly self-sustaining system, the fish produce waste that feed the plants. No need for soil, fertilizer, or chemicals.
HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN THIS PROCESS TO OTHERS?
Jackson- Aquaculture is raising fish in water. Hydroponics is raising plants without soil. In any system, you have to put nutrients in. Our nutrient is fish feed.
Tyler- We feed the fish, they excrete the waste that feeds the plants, the water comes back to the plants clean.
Jackson- The plants are the living filter for the fish. The fish are the nutrients for the plants.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
Tyler- We were spawning tilapia in my spare bedroom in my apartment in the East End, out of huge animal feed tanks.
Jackson- It’s all an experiment, that’s all it’s ever been.
Tyler- That’s the attraction, it’s never-ending problem-solving.
Jackson- For the last few years, I’ve been working as a mechanical engineer. I built the machines that build machines. Now, I’m full-time here.
Tyler- It just really started out of interest. I just thought I could make this work. With Jackson, we went to high school together. And in college, I was breeding tree frogs in my dorm room. We’ve always been doing this.
Jackson- He had all these animals, like snakes. He was trying to make the perfect ecosystem. Like building rain chambers to make frogs think it was rainy season and time to mate.
Tyler- There’s definitely a marriage between his mechanical brain and my biologist brain. It’s one thing to take miracle grow and make a plant. But to take a living creature and grow a plant from it, and grow two products from one, all while mimicking natural processes– that’s what attracts us.
TELL ME ABOUT THE CHALLENGES YOU ENCOUNTERED DURING THIS PROCESS.
Tyler- How much time do you have? (Laughs)
Jackson- The science of doing it has been the easiest part.
Tyler- Like, we know what conditions we need to get the water to. But getting the water to that point is the hard part. Like taking that fish turd and making a plant out of it is the hard part. We know what we want, how much calcium and the pH we want- but getting it through moving water, that’s the hard part.
WHAT ARE THE SUCCESSES YOU’VE HAD?
Tyler- Seventy pounds of basil every six weeks out of a 22-foot long greenhouse!
Jackson- The ability to take junk and reclaim it so that it grows food has been the biggest success. We could spend hours telling you about the stuff we salvaged. Our ability to make a greenhouse out of materials that aren’t meant to be a greenhouse. Our last greenhouse literally came out of a dumpster.
Tyler- The greenhouse was a carport, the fish tanks were recycled, the water channels were gutters.
Jackson- That’s really afforded us to not undertake a big financial risk, to not take out a big loan. The biggest success was having two years of operation and we were able to show it to the public, who were able to support us to this level through a Kickstarter. That’s the biggest success: that we operated just in our spare time. And people saw that and saw value in what we were doing. To have people find value in that is something I didn’t see coming. It spurred us on.
WHAT DO YOU THINK SETS THIS PROCESS APART?
Jackson- It’s hard to say with any perspective because we are so new in it, and so entrenched in it. We can say what other people say about its difference.
Tyler- There’s a sustainability. That’s what everyone talks about. You are getting greens, you are getting fish. You aren’t using herbicides or fertilizers or pesticides. No drugs or hormones because everything is a balancing act. Really, the sustainability is what attracts everyone to it. But it’s one thing we don’t try to make claims about, because we are so new. We can’t define our inputs yet, in terms of heat and power and things like that. We are just interested in the process, bringing it to Maine, and running it year round. Now the big challenge is if we can make it work in the winter.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE WORKING AS A TWO-PERSON TEAM?
Tyler- I wouldn’t be doing this with anyone else. Jack and I have known each other for 15 years. We know how each other operates. We can argue or reason through things.
Jackson- It’s motivating. It’s been overwhelming, how much work we had to do. It’s been on a ride, and to be able to be reflect with someone and know you are doing the right thing.
Tyler- Just building this operation has been a full-time job. There are literally thousands of hours putting into this place already.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Tyler- The ability to continue this. I’m not looking to get rich, as long as we can keep the lights on and the pumps running…
Jackson- Success is definitely important, in terms of this job. Communication has been really important for us in this process. The ability to move forward, if we can communicate effectively, it’s amazing how much easier it is.
TELL ME ABOUT A LESSON YOU HAVE BEEN LEARNING OR LEARNED RECENTLY?
Jackson- There are a million lessons to be learned here. The broader lesson is the value of your friends and family, for several reasons. One is the Kickstarter. The value in friends and family who supported us. And, I’ve had a couple of really bad accidents in the last few years, the people who came and helped me. That is really important.
Tyler- One of the biggest things I have taken away from this project is the ability to start thinking more outside of the box. Really thinking long-term. How does this scenario set us up for down the road. It’s easy to get hung up on little leaks in the pond-line, but at the end of the day what’s really important is forecasting. To not sweat the small stuff. Sometimes I get sucked into the details.
Jackson- And my mind is about the much bigger picture.
Tyler- And I can credit that to thousands of hours with Jack. He’s looking at the big picture, and I’m like, “What are we gonna do about this pH?” Jack can pull me out of that. The ability to balance each other out.
WHAT IS THE BEST MEAL YOU’VE MADE WITH THE PRODUCTS YOU’VE GROWN?
Tyler- The tilapia spring rolls were pretty killer.
Jackson- We make a ton of pesto.
Tyler- We grow kale and husk cherries and tomatoes and pepper. This will be the first year we are taking the fish to market.
WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
Tyler- Pulling in to here. As soon as I walk into this place, I forget everything I was worrying about. I’m like, “I’m gonna feed the fish.” I’m going to zone out on this project.
Jackson- That’s my favorite part of the day, feeding the fish. It’s a moment of Zen. I can just watch them and giggle. The idea that we are providing the ecosystem for them, and they are happy little fish. That is the funnest part of the day. There’s a part that makes me feel like I am a five-year-old playing in the stream.