Jeni and Doug Blackburn stand inside their growing structure that allows them to produce greens year-round.

Ditching the dirt

Jeni and Doug Blackburn aren’t your typical farmers. These Union County Farm Bureau members own and run Fresh Harvest Farm—an aquaponics farm in Richwood, a small town 45 miles north of Columbus. Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture, which is the raising of fish in a contained environment, and hydroponics, which is the growing of plants using a circulating water system. This combination creates a perfect closed system where the fish provide nutrient-rich water for the plants and the plants provide the fish with fresh, filtered water. It’s a farming method that’s becoming increasingly popular, and Fresh Harvest Farm is currently the only operation of its size in central Ohio.

“People think that you have to have dirt to grow,” Doug said. “You don’t. The root is just an anchor. Off that root is the root hair, and that’s what looks for moisture and absorbs all of the minerals.” In a circulating water environment, the nutrients and minerals are constantly flowing by the root hairs, making them available for easy absorption. “The plants actually grow two times faster this way,” explained Jeni. Instead of using energy trying to anchor itself in soil, the plant can use that energy to grow. Additionally, the Blackburns say aquaponics uses less than 2 percent of the water and 70 to 90 percent less energy than traditional farming making it a sustainable way to grow produce and raise fish.

A new venture
With an impending retirement on the horizon, Doug needed to find something to do to occupy his free time. After extensive research and deliberation, he chose to pursue aquaponic farming. He and Jeni attended a training program in Florida and brought their knowledge back to Ohio where they started building their first greenhouse. “You had to learn not only how to grow this way, but how to take care of fish,” Jeni said. “You learn about the ecosystem. What will make it thrive, and what will kill it? You have to figure out what you can and can’t grow in different climates.”

The training in Florida focused on warmer temperatures, so the Blackburns had to adapt what they learned to Ohio’s colder climate. “We matched the ideal temperature for perch with the ideal temperature for lettuce, and they both seem to thrive that way,” said Doug, and he has 2,100 perch and a wide assortment of produce to prove it. “We have seven different types of lettuce, two types of kale, Swiss chard, arugula and collard greens. That’s pretty much my winter crop. In the summer, we add tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchinis and other warm weather crops.”

Making sure the produce stays pesticide-free is especially important to Jeni and Doug. “Because of the fish, a lot of organic sprays can’t be used. The products available for an organic grower will kill the fish,” explained Doug. “The fish will keep you honest.” Instead, they rely on integrated pest management, an environmentally sensitive way of controlling pest problems. “When I get aphids, which happens if you grow any type of lettuce or leafy plant, I bring in ladybugs to eat the aphids,” Doug said.

Fresh Harvest Farm customers don’t seem to mind finding an occasional ladybug in their lettuce because they value the farm’s growing methods. “For me, the most amazing part of this is the acceptance of the product that we have,” Doug said. “(People) could go somewhere else that might be 50 cents a head cheaper, but they’ll come to us because they know our product.”

The restaurants using Fresh Harvest Farm lettuce also have received positive feedback from their patrons. “We’ve had restaurants say that people will actually ask if the lettuce came from our farm before they get dressing. It’ll affect whether they get dressing on the side or on the salad. Our lettuce has more flavor,” Doug said.

Those looking to buy Fresh Harvest Farm lettuce can find it at many farmers markets in central Ohio, including a few winter markets. When the farmers markets start to close for the season, customers can still get lettuce through the farm’s “Lettuce Club.” For $6 a week, members receive two heads of lettuce. People can join by the week or by the month and have an opportunity to receive produce year-round.

Jeni and Doug have plans to expand Fresh Harvest Farm and recently constructed a second greenhouse they hope to have up and running soon.

Felicia Brower is a freelance writer from Columbus.