By Lacey Peterson, Black Hills Pioneer
BELLE FOURCHE, S.D. (AP) — A Butte County couple is putting fish to work in a new aquaponic greenhouse, growing fresh, locally-grown lettuce that now lines Northern Hills grocery shelves.
He is a Black Hills and Wyoming native, she’s from northeast Iowa, and together, Chris and Alexa Garro, owners of Garro Farms, have mastered the art of mimicking a natural ecosystem that combines traditional aquaculture with hydroculture in the ultimate symbiotic system.
It just so happens that the work fish naturally do, eating and producing waste, is the perfect fertilizer for growing plants. And boy do those fish grow a lot of plants when they get to work.
The best of both worlds
Aquaponics uses the best of all the growing techniques, utilizing the waste of one element to benefit another, mimicking a natural ecosystem.
Alexa told the Black Hills Pioneer it represents the relationship between water, aquatic life, bacteria, nutrient dynamics, and plants that grow together in waterways all over the world. Taking cues from nature, aquaponics harnesses the power of bio-integrating those individual components — exchanging the waste byproduct from the fish as a food for the bacteria, to be converted into a perfect fertilizer for the plants, and return the water in a clean and safe form to the fish — just like mother nature does in every aquatic ecosystem.
“If we were to let this system just hang out and never touch it, it (the bacterial symbiotic process) would happen naturally,” Alexa said. “It’s kind of like nature wants to make it work, and then we just provide the facilities.”
The system has found shortcuts around common agricultural issues.
While gardens can be located in your backyard, industrial farms are often thousands of miles from where their food is consumed. This requires extensive transportation, refrigeration, and packaging to get the food from farm to table.
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil, by instead using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent. While hydroponics solves many soil-based issues, it also offers its own problems.
Traditional hydroponic systems rely on the careful application of expensive, man-made nutrients made from mixing together a concoction of chemicals, salts, and trace elements. For the Garros, through aquaponics, they merely feed the fish and monitor the system carefully, and grow fresh, bountiful greenery that you could have on your table the day after harvest.
The Arpan setup
Garro Farms, located approximately 18 miles northeast of Belle Fourche on Arpan Road, is home to the 2,400 square-foot commercial-scale greenhouse. Chris, utilizing second-hand materials, built the greenhouse with the ultimate goal — to supply fresh produce to the Northern Hills and Wyoming areas all year long.
“It took some imagination to get it to this,” Chris said. “And I hope other people follow suit, too.”
Although there are numerous types of aquaponic systems, the Garros selected deep-water culture, or raft-based growing, that uses a foam raft which floats in a 12-inch deep channel filled with fish effluent water that has been filtered to remove solid wastes. Plants are placed in holes in the raft and the roots dangle freely in the water.
In 2018, Chris implemented a smaller backyard experiment in aquaponics and found the plentiful rewards it could provide. He said the property had only a limited amount of available space, forcing him to get creative, making aquaponics the perfect solution to offer healthy, high-yielding fresh produce.
The system’s water starts out in a 500-gallon in-ground tank and is pumped into the tank where the fish thrive. From there, the nutrient-rich water flows through a solids filter and into a bacterial conversion tank before being piped into the “beds” where the plants roost while they grow.
“And then back again,” Alexa said. “So, it’s all a big cycle. The plants clean out that nitrate, and it comes back to the fish.”
The system circulates approximately 4,500 gallons of water each hour, Chris said.
And the system works well.
“Almost every single thing that comes out of this, there’s no waste byproduct,” she said, adding that other than adding iron to the water, Garro Farms doesn’t provide any additives to the process. “Otherwise, it’s completely self-sustaining. The older the system gets, the more efficient it works, and the more balanced it gets.”
“We figured out how to basically get as much production in this size (of) greenhouse as we would get out of something four times this size,” Alexa said. “So, by taking the square footage and doing a certain crop rotation that he did, that’s how we get (the amount of production).”
Currently, the farm grows six types of lettuce — green oakleaf, rouxai, adriana, salanova red incised, green incised and butter crunch. They also cultivate microgreens, grown under natural sunlight in the greenhouse, including pea shoots, purple-stemmed radish and sunflower. But that’s not all; the Garros are experimenting with herbs like cilantro and culinary sage.
“To be this new and have the right levels and everything producing was a stroke of genius on Chris’ part,” Alexa said.
Without the rotation the Garros utilize, Chris said it would be next to impossible to get the amount of growth production.
“We can do between 50,000-74,000 heads of lettuce out of here a year,” he said. “And if I had done it the conventional way and not moved anything, if we just put in the water and let it grow … they need quite a bit of room when they get bigger and we’d of cut that (production) in a quarter.”
From the time the seeds are planted, the plants are full grown and ready for market in about 35 days, Chris said.
“We’re not using any special seed or anything like that,” he said. “We’re trying to provide ideal conditions, and if you give something ideal conditions, … it just does better.”
What about the fish?
As one of the main components in an aquaponic system, the fish are an important focus for the Garros.
Chris said he stocked his 1,500-gallon fish tank, which is above ground and separate from the water tank, with 50 pounds of fathead minnows three or four months ago.
The type of fish is atypical for an aquaponic setup, Chris said.
“This is pretty experimental, too, because I haven’t read about anybody doing that with bait fish,” he said.
Due to the proximity to the Belle Fourche Reservoir and wanting to keep product procurement as local as possible, the farm gets the minnows from the Wheel In Bait Shop.
The local supply is handy but, Alexa said the fish species is particularly hardy when it comes to handling the area temperatures, whereas other fish species typically used in other aquaponic setups like tilapia, koi or goldfish would struggle in the South Dakota conditions.
So, what happens when the fish get too big and the balance is thrown off?
“The cool thing about it is we’ll trade these out for smaller ones with the bait shop,” Chris said.
A 50-pound batch of minnows will likely thrive in the greenhouse for around six months before needing to be traded out for smaller ones, he said.
“Most people factor in because they either do a huge, massive, million-dollar scale building, or they have a little backyard system,” Alexa said. “So, they either want to eat the fish or they’re factoring it into their revenue plan. For us … it’s so weird fitting that middle ground where we’re not a million-dollar facility but we’re not a 500-gallon backyard system. What worked for everybody else will not quite work here, especially in South Dakota in the wintertime.”
Pandemic curveball meets ingenuity
The current pandemic conditions put a slight kink into the Garros’ plans.
Chris said that the pandemic conditions related to COVID-19 have caused a supply shortage for some of the supplies needed for the greenhouse, requiring them to operate on a smaller level until more supplies arrive.
“And we don’t even have this thing (the aquaponic bed) like a quarter of the way full, and this is (producing) about 860 heads (of lettuce) a week,” Alexa said.
In about a month, Chris anticipated the greenhouse would likely be at around three-quarters capacity.
Even through the rough conditions, Garro Farms is rising above and plowing through the roadblocks. The farm’s produce is already on the shelves of Lueders Food Centers in Spearfish and Belle Fourche, Lynn’s Dakotamart in Belle Fourche, Bee’s Knees Natural Foods in Spearfish, Grocery Mart in Sturgis and Bearlodge Bakery in Sundance, Wyoming.
Soon, that will likely expand. Alexa said they’re in talks with some restaurants all the way to Rapid City, hoping to provide locally grown, healthy options everywhere.
“We had such a good response from everybody. All the stores we’ve sold to … they’re selling out weekly,” Chris said.
The bigger picture
The couple, who, between the two of them, has ranched in Montana, worked in the Bakken oil fields, done professional construction work, and worked in radio and news outlets, decided they wanted a new direction in life.
“It’s good work, and I didn’t mind it,” Chris said. “But, doing something like this, to me, is a bigger thing. Growing food, to me, is more important.”
The farm expects to be able to keep a consistent level of inventory in terms of production, year-round.
“The way that we’re going to get away with that is the grow lights,” Chris said. “In the wintertime, I’ll probably put them over all the beds. You need 10-15 hours of sunlight (each day).”
The couple was uniquely drawn toward growing lettuce. Chris said that around 95% of the country’s lettuce comes from the California region.
“There’s no reason we can’t grow this locally like this,” he said.
“Lettuce is just one crop that you can’t really get it in mass in the winter in South Dakota,” Alexa said. “This is something that everybody that I talked to had the same problem, ‘I buy lettuce, it goes bad; I buy lettuce, it’s not really what I wanted.’ We just kind of went, ‘lets focus on this and get it going.’”
The pandemic conditions have highlighted to the couple the importance of having a local supply chain.
“If we can do this here, I think it’s possible pretty much anywhere,” Chris said.
Chris said he hopes to continue to grow the business, bring on staff, and someday, produce for most of western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming.
Although the farm sold its first batches of lettuce to local stores in mid-April, the couple is already expanding on the greenhouse, planning a 12-foot addition to the front to accommodate a packaging area.