Greenhouse uses fish to grow lettuce during Prairie winter

Watch above: In the dead of winter on the Prairies, fresh produce is still available from greenhouses. Wendy Winiewski travelled to one such business in Annaheim, Sask. and found something a little “fishy” about the operation.

ANNAHEIM, Sask. – Kale, romaine lettuce, beet leaves, and pea shoots are flourishing in central Saskatchewan in the dead of winter at Campbell Greenhouses. A unique aquaponic greenhouse is turning out delicious, nutritious, leafy greens without the use of soil.

“We say it’s a greenhouse but it looks nothing like a traditional greenhouse,” part owner Neil Erickson explains.

Erickson and Mary Campbell are the brains behind the beast.

“Everybody asks me how many employees we have,” said Campbell. “I say ‘oh over 200 ‘cause these are our little employees’,” she said motioning toward a massive tank of fish.

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“They’re doing all of the work for us.”

The aquaponic cycle begins with koi and talapia fish and keeping them well fed.

“What happens is, they poop and then our fish waste product goes through a series of biological filters,” explains Campbell.

Bacteria cultures convert the waste to nitrates then the gravity fed system distributes it as fertilizer to bunks of growing beds waiting below. Suspended above the water are trays of plants, their roots reaching down and absorbing the nutrient rich fish waste water.

The groundless roots are long and health and the plants are thriving.

Campbell and Erickson met at Olds College in Alberta while studying horticulture. They’ve been designing and building the aquaponic system in central Saskatchewan for the past three years.

The couple is now distributing and selling their product throughout the province to Regina distributor, Local & Fresh as well as Dad’s Organics, Lakeview Fine Foods and a couple shops in the nearby community of Humboldt.

“We still have room for more clients,” said Campbell, “and I think the demand is out there, it’s more about people finding out that we’re out there.”

READ MORE: Company looks to grow strawberries year-round in Saskatchewan

According to Statistics Canada, 80 per cent of produce consumed in this country is imported. A report by Saskatchewan Irrigation Projects Association shows Saskatchewan imports $26 million worth of vegetables annually. The province’s self sufficiency rate is 10 per cent.

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From seed, to germination, to harvest, to packaging, Erickson and Campbell do it all at Campbell Greenhouses. The couple has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars, and hopes to recover their costs and start making profits within another four years.

Creating a biological ecosystem has not been an easy road.

A mechanical issue caused the fish tanks to flood over in fall, throwing off the balance of the biological system they’d created when the nutrients and bacteria escaped. They’re recovering and say the business is in a good place. The couple is continuing to promote local food grown by fish.

“You buy my lettuce; my money stays here, stays in the province,” said Erickson.

The next hurdle is becoming organic certified.

Campbell Greenhouses feed their fish only organic food, use no pesticides and use insects such as lady bugs to take care of aphid problems. They are unable to get organic certification because there’s no certification available for aquaponic food.

The ‘organic’ stamp is given based on soil but their system functions without soil leaving them at the mercy of the written terminology.

They’re prompting Agriculture Canada’s Organic Products Regulations to change the legislation to catch up with the technology.