SALISBURY— Most farmers depend on soil to grow their crops.
Allan Lanton uses fish.
In a humid, high-tunnel greenhouse nestled between pastures north of Salisbury, Ohio’s transplant harnesses the nutrients naturally produced by tilapia to grow leafy greens and other plants, all without soil.
“You don’t really need a tractor. You don’t have to grow anything out of the ground,” Lanton said. “You’re doing everything above ground and you can do it sustainably and you can do it much faster than (traditional) farming.”
The upstart company is called Evercroissance Aquaponique and Lanton plans to introduce its fish farming products to the Salisbury Farmer’s Market and other local grocery stores.
Aquaponics is a food production system that combines aquaculture (raising aquatic animals) and hydroponics (growing plants in water). In the Lanton system, more than a dozen tilapia swim in a
oxygen tank. The tank water, which contains the ammonia-rich waste products of the fish, is pumped through a biofilter. The bacteria present in the filter transform the ammonia into nitrates. The water is then filtered into a plant trough where the roots of the floating plants absorb the nitrates.
Essentially, fish waste is turned into plant food. No fertilizer needed.
The clean water is then pumped into the aquarium and the cycle begins again. It is a closed system, which means less water is wasted.
“It uses about 90% less water than traditional agriculture,” Lanton said.
The whole system is about 20 feet long, which is relatively small for commercial purposes. Still, Lanton said he has the capacity to grow 150 heads of lettuce at a time. It only takes six weeks to grow a head of lettuce from seed. He is also experimenting with growing a few stalks of corn, peppers and Moringa seeds.
Lanton will eventually harvest tilapia as well. While some may view farmed fish as a stigma, Lanton said he likes to know exactly the environment the tilapia was raised in and what it was fed.
Now an expert in aquaponics, Lanton recalls how alien the food production system seemed to him at first.
“I was like, what kind of witchcraft is this?” said Lanton.
Lanton discovered aquaponics about a decade ago while on a trip to visit Growing Power in Milwaukee. Founded by Will Allen, Growing Power was a nonprofit farm that became a model for urban agriculture before it disbanded in 2017.
“I visited (Allen’s) farm in the dead of winter,” Lanton said. “It was around 30 degrees. I walked into a greenhouse like this and was mesmerized by all the green growing there. I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to build one.’ ”
But Lanton’s dream lay dormant for several years. Around this time, he moved from Ohio to North Carolina to study at the Charlotte School of Law. He now works full time in banking and lives in Charlotte.
Four years ago, Lanton was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Commonly known as MS, it is a chronic disease that affects the brain and spinal cord, which make up the central nervous system. For Lanton, that means “ice-pick” type headaches, bouts of fatigue and the occasional brain fog.
Stress can exacerbate MS, which is why Lanton decided last year to act on his goal of creating his own aquaponics system.
“My neurologist told me I needed to go into a less stressful environment,” Lanton said.
Maintaining the aquaponics system is soothing to Lanton.
“My colleagues, all they care about is when they’re fed next,” Lanton said.
Several friends traveled to Rowan County from out of state to help build the high-tunnel greenhouse – a feat accomplished in just two days.
“It was an army of people,” Lanton said.
Lanton and his wife Celina built the aquaponics system indoors. They also receive guidance from aquaponics guru Sam Fleming, director of the nonprofit 100 Gardens and an advocate for aquaponic STEM learning in Charlotte-area schools and correctional facilities.
Lanton runs the system largely from his home near Charlotte and visits the greenhouse once or twice a week. A monitor that sends data to his phone helps him track water temperature, and an automatic fish feeder dispenses food to the tilapia three times a day.
While EverGrowing Aquaponics is in its infancy as a business — Lanton refers to the few dozen heads of romaine lettuce currently growing as its “proof of concept” — it has big plans for the future. Lanton ultimately aims to build a larger system in East Spencer that can produce 1,000 heads of lettuce per week.