Salisbury – Most farmers rely on soil to grow their crops.
Allan Lanton uses fish.
In a damp greenhouse with a tall tunnel tucked between pastures north of Salisbury, an Ohio graft uses the nutrients naturally produced by tilapia to grow leafy greens and other plants—all without soil.
“The tractor is not really needed. You don’t have to grow anything from the ground, Lanton said. “You do everything on the ground, and you can do it sustainably, and you can do it much faster than (traditional) agriculture.”
The upstart company is called Evergrowing Aquaponics, and Lanton plans to introduce his fish-grown products to the Salisbury Farmers’ Market and other local grocery stores.
Aquaponics is a food production system that combines aquaculture (raising aquatic animals) with hydroponics (growing plants in water). In the Lanton system, more than a dozen tilapia swim in
oxygen tank. Aquarium water containing ammonia-rich fish waste is pumped through a biofilter. Bacteria in the filter convert ammonia to nitrate. The water is then filtered into a plant tank where the roots of the floating plants absorb the nitrates.
Essentially, fish waste is turned into plant food. Fertilizers are not needed.
The clean water is then pumped back into the aquarium and the cycle begins again. It’s a closed system, which means less water is wasted.
“It uses about 90% less water than conventional farming,” Lanton said.
The entire system is about 20 feet long, which is relatively short for commercial purposes. However, Lanton said he has the capacity to grow 150 heads of lettuce at a time. It takes only six weeks to grow a head of lettuce from seed. He is also experimenting with growing multiple stalks of corn, peppers and moringa seeds.
Lanton would end up harvesting tilapia as well. While some may consider farm-raised fish a stigma, Lanton said he likes to know exactly what kind of environment the tilapia was raised in and what it was fed.
Now Lanton, an aquaponics expert, recalls how alien the food production system seemed to him at first.
“I thought, what kind of witchcraft is this?” Lanton said.
Lanton learned about aquaponics about a decade ago when he visited Growing Power in Milwaukee. Founded by Will Allen, Growing Power was a non-profit farm that became a model for urban farming before disbanding in 2017.
“I visited (Allen’s) farm in the dead of winter,” Lanton said. “It was about 30 degrees. I went into such a greenhouse and was simply fascinated by all the greenery that was growing. I thought, “Yes, I want to build one of these.” ”
But Lanton’s dream remained dormant for several years. At that time, he moved from Ohio to North Carolina to attend Charlotte Law School. He now works full-time in banking and lives in Charlotte.
Four years ago, Lanton was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Commonly referred to as multiple sclerosis, this is a chronic disease that affects the brain and spinal cord, which make up the central nervous system. For Lanton, that means ice-crushing headaches, bouts of fatigue, and the occasional foggy head.
Stress can make MS worse, so last year Lanton decided to act on his goal and create his own aquaponic system.
“My neurologist told me I needed to get into a less stressful environment,” Lanton said.
Maintaining the aquaponics system puts Lanton at ease.
“My colleagues, they only care about the next time they get fed,” Lanton said.
Several friends came to Rowan County from out of state to help him build a greenhouse with a tall tunnel, a feat accomplished in just two days.
“It was an army of people,” Lanton said.
Lanton and his wife Selina built an aquaponics system inside. They also receive recommendations from aquaponics guru Sam Fleming, director of the nonprofit 100 Gardens and an advocate for STEM aquaponics education in schools and correctional facilities in the Charlotte area.
Lanton operates the system primarily from his home near Charlotte and visits the greenhouse once or twice a week. A monitor that sends data to his phone helps him keep track of the water temperature, and an automatic feeder dispenses tilapia food three times a day.
While Evergrowing Aquaponics is in its infancy as a company — Lanton refers to the several dozen heads of romaine lettuce currently growing as a “proof of concept” — he has big plans for the future. Lanton plans to eventually build a larger system in East Spencer that can produce 1,000 heads of lettuce a week.