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Farming with Fish

How fresh greens get from an office park off Rufina to SFPS cafeteria trays, all year round

Desert Verde’s aquaponics operation has been growing strong since November 2021. (John R Roby)

The women took their lettuce seriously.

They watched over shreds of mixed greens sized for kid-portion trays. The shreds filled a clear plastic food-grade bin almost too big for one person to heft. The just-uncovered bin sat on a countertop in the prep area of Salazar Elementary’s cafeteria on a recent morning. In about an hour, Caesar salad would be on the menu for 170 hungry learners.

“We don’t ever leave it out like this or it would get mushy—not look as fresh as it does now.” The words from Cecilia “Cece” Tapia, cook and cashier at Salazar, came across as a promise. The bin would be covered and chilling if not for the press.

To understand why Tapia and cafeteria lead Paula Herrera gave the produce such care, start by thinking about a typical encounter with lettuce in the wild. Think about that floppy skim coat on a fast food sandwich bun, machine-cut with disturbing precision. This was not that. This looked like what you’d pull from your own garden, if you had the time and space and skill.

The lettuce came from bags stamped Desert Verde Farm of Santa Fe, with a harvest date of two days before.

“Looks good, right?” Tapia said.

“That looks pretty,” Herrera agreed.

It looked like lettuce you’d want your kids eating.

But it probably didn’t arrive in the cafeteria the way you’d expect. About a month before ending up in front of Tapia and Herrera and the hungry 170, the lettuce had sprouted in a cavernous office space near Meow Wolf.

Desert Verde Farm fills 4,700 square feet, about 200 of that being owner Andrew Neighbour’s office. The office is sparse. It’s mostly Neighbour’s desk. The warehouse is lush. That’s where 2,000 heads of various greens become ready for harvest each week. Neighbour calculates his 0.1 acre, if fully built-out, could equal the output of a 4-acre soil-based organic farm—using a fraction of the water.

The farm runs on aquaponics, a blend of techniques from hydroponics and aquaculture with the goal of a system that’s greener and more productive than either alone. Helpful fish get fed, what comes out of the fish feeds the plants and the cycle repeats with little or no need for added chemicals. Neighbour signed his lease in January 2021, and by November was selling his first mixed greens.

A Ph.D. microbiologist and former associate vice chancellor for research at UCLA, Neighbour, 72, sometimes speaks as though he’s reasoning through an argument. After talking out the pros and cons of aquaponics vis-a-vis hydroponics alone, he lands on the former being a form of “pure biology.”

“You see the microorganisms—Daphnia and bacteria and copepods and other things—just chewing up food so that the plants can thrive, and the plants producing food for the community and the fish helping things along the way,” he tells SFR. “The system gets to a point of stability, and it just thrives. That, to me, is magic.”

At Desert Verde Farm, hundreds of Nile tilapia are fed a diet meant to create fertilizer the food plants crave. Aquaponics grows plants deeper than hydroponics because nutrients are less dense. That takes relatively more space. Neighbour grows most of his greens in troughs up to a foot deep, so he stacks the troughs and uses pumps to circulate the nutrient-rich water. Aquaponics and other methods of farming with less soil, water, or both, are niche but not fringe. (See SFR’s previous coverage: Soilless Solution, Roadmap for Resilience, Finding Oscar).

He describes the business model as “skewed toward altruism.” One motivation in starting it, he says, was to give instead of consume.

“I see these farmers who are growing hydroponic lettuce, and what they’re doing is they’re selling it to people who shop at Whole Foods,” he says. “But we’ve got a community hunger problem, and it irks me that more people are not saying ‘we’ve got to figure out how to feed hungry people.’”

Some of Neighbour’s best customers are organizations working to feed hungry people. A major buyer from Desert Verde Farm and the source of Salazar Elementary’s salad greens is the New Mexico Grown Farm to School Program of the state Public Education Department.

The program allocated $1.2 million to 58 districts and other entities this school year to help procure food from local farmers, according to PED data. That total has more than doubled since 2019, when $450,000 went out. Santa Fe Public Schools’ share was $50,000, up from between $30,000 and $40,000 in recent years.

Betsy Cull, director of student nutrition services, welcomes the increase, noting, “it’ll get spent.” She says having Desert Verde and the district’s other farm partners nearby pays off in a lot of ways.

“Anything picked in the past few days has a much-higher nutrient content than something that’s been on a truck for two weeks,” Cull says. “We’re also creating customers for our local farmers, which in turn benefits the local market, so it’s supporting the community as well.”

Neighbour sells as far afield as Las Cruces via New Mexico Harvest. Most of his customers, like the district, are buying with state support. “Local-forward” Santa Fe restaurants, he says, are less interested than you’d think.

Hundreds of Nile tilapia are fed a diet meant to create fertilizer for plants. Both fish and plants are sold as food. (John R Roby)

Neighbour also teaches classes part time in Santa Fe Community College’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Program and now hires students from its ranks. On a recent morning, some of those students prepared to harvest the oldest tilapia. The fish live in four 1,000-gallon tanks in the “fish room,” sorted by generation. Neighbour pointed to the tank at the end of the line.

“These are the ones, the big guys,” he says. On this day, Neighbour had a buyer.

Next to the grow room’s vertical troughs sits the “nursery” where Salazar Elementary’s greens were born and nursed for two weeks before they graduated to the grow room.

The nursery is the grow room in miniscule. It runs on a separate, pocket aquaponics system powered by young tilapia, tiny fingerlings that Neighbour brings in 350 at a time to replace the old cohort—baby fish feeding baby greens in a system seeking stability.

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