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North County Farming Operation Grows More Than Just Produce

North County Farming Operation Grows More Than Just Produce

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Long water-filled tanks in the Solutions Farms aquaponics greenhouse are shown, Sept. 16, 2015. This is where the plants mature before harvest.

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A Vista greenhouse covers the largest aquaponics facility in Southern California, and the business is getting bigger. Local operators are hoping to build a money-making facility that does more than just grow high quality food.

Jennifer Pankey cleared a worktable inside the Solutions Farm greenhouse.

"So right here, right now, we're about to be seeding into trays and this is where it starts the whole life of the plant," Pankey said.

Coconut husks, not dirt, fill the trays.

Pankey put an organic seed into each cell. Then she carried the seeded tray to a tall cabinet in the next room.

"Then they just go in this cabinet," said Pankey as she slid the tray onto the shelf. "We put them under plastic because they like to be dark in the germination process."

A few days in the dark and the tray emerges with tiny sprouts pushing up through the husks.

A week or so of sunlight and the fledgling plants are ready to move to large water filled growing tanks.

"And we would transplant it into a net pot — a net pot's two inches," Pankey said. "You just take it directly from the tray, pull it up and put it into the net pot. And then it starts establishing its roots. You can tell the roots are good because they're nice bright white and clean. It's what you're looking for."

So far, pretty standard stuff for a hydroponic farm, but there's a major difference here.

This operation combines two kinds of farming

That difference is found in the square tanks at the end of the room. Farm manager Kevin Gorham stood next to the water filled tank as he threw a large canister of fish pellets into the water. There was plenty of splashing as the fish scrambled for lunch.

This greenhouse grows both plants and fish.

"In hydroponics, fertilizers build up in your systems until they have to be emptied and refilled. And in aquaculture the fish waste builds up until it becomes toxic," Gorham said.

Combining the systems, solves both problems. Fish help filter materials the plants can't use so clean water gets returned to the grow tanks. The plants clean water that's loaded up with nutrition-rich fish waste.

Gorham said swapping water between the tanks creates a system that produces food using much less water than one might expect.

"Even though we have a lot of water in our systems, because that water circulates indefinitely, we only use about 1 percent of the system volume per day. That works out to be about $100 a month in our water bill," Gorham said.

Farms this size, about 7,000 square feet, can spend that much on water in one day.

And there are efficiencies in the grow cycle.

Seed-to-harvest time is a week or so shorter than typical farms, Gorham said.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Fully grown lettuce that matured in water at Solution Farms in Vista, CA on Sept. 16, 2015.

Expansion plans are already moving forward.

The greenhouse currently produces 25,000 pounds of lettuce and about 5,000 pounds of tilapia a year.

However, the operation is on the verge of tripling in size.

"With our expansion, we're going to take our lessons learned and quadruple production," Gorham said. So we hope to produce about 100,000 pounds of leafy greens per year. And between 30,000 and 40,000 pounds of talapia as well."

But this operation grows more than just plants and fish. The farm is owned and operated by Solutions for Change, a North County nonprofit trying to solve family homelessness. The greenhouse is one stepping stone, said founder Chris Megison.

The greenhouse grows more than just food, it is growing a future

"When we saw that this farming method was very, very innovative, very different — we thought, 'What if we could connect our people to be pioneers with us in this thing?'" Megison said. "I got to tell you that when homeless people come in here and see what we're doing here, they get really excited about it. They see that it's part of something very innovative."

The people working here are dealing with issues that pushed them out onto the street. Megison said 30 to 50 people a month cycle through the facility, learning job skills as part of his organization's Solutions University.

"These folks will work this farm," Megison said. "(They can) be a part of something very purposeful so now we're growing and selling 10's of thousands of food a year to the Vista Unified School District and the kids in the school district are eating some of the best food they can put in their mouths."

That social mission touched Jennifer Pankey who is handling lettuce at the greenhouses harvest table.

"Harvesting, we clip the lettuce, down at the base. Take the dead leaves off," Pankey said.

The farm has helped her plant family roots. She has worked here since the greenhouse opened 2012, but she came here as someone looking to get her life back on track.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Jennifer Pankey clips mature lettuce that's been grown at Solution farms on Sept. 16, 2015.

Pankey put her struggles with addiction aside her for her two daughters.

Pankey said other people are doing the same: "100 percent of the people I meet going through here say they are doing this for their kids. And they find themselves along the way."

Solutions for Change hopes the farm will eventually make money because the facility currently has to rely on grants to help pay operating costs.

All eyes are focused on an impending expansion.

Increasing scale could grow revenue enough to create a profit. That money could help fund the group's efforts to end family homelessness.

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