The Meriden-Wallingford ARC is joining the local food movement – with some really local food. In the next few months, if all goes as planned, customers of the organization's carryout food service will begin to taste vegetables and fish that were raised right in the building.
The ARC Eatery, a division of the nonprofit organization that trains, employs, and otherwise serves adults and children with developmental disabilities, is developing an "aquaponic" system in a new greenhouse attached to its main building on Research Parkway.
The system, begun in January, combines hydroponic gardening – the method of growing plants in water, not soil – with fish farming or "aquaculture." The developers say it is a self-sustaining way to rapidly and inexpensively produce both organic vegetables and fish year-round by placing the two into a symbiotic relationship.
It's an enterprise creative enough to catch the interest of Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, who visited the ARC Thursday morning to see it.
"This...I think is an innovation that might be very good for this organization and others," Malloy said following a tour of the greenhouse and a walk through the ARC building. "I wanted to celebrate their success, initially on an experimental basis but hopeful that perhaps this can spread," he said of his visit.
Malloy has publicly championed similar endeavors, like turning abandoned industrial buildings into fish farms, according to a Jan. 13 article in the CT Post.
The Governor was joined by the state's agriculture commisioner Steven Reviczky, other state staff as well as leaders of ARC programs from other towns interested in the project on his tour.
Steve Fields, who is in charge of building and maintaining the aquaponic system along with a number of volunteers, showed the Governor how it works.
Pointing to a plastic pool filled with swimming goldfish, Fields explained that fish waste fertilizes the plants, and the plants in turn filter the water so it can be returned, clean, to the fish.
"We pump the water from the fish tanks, up into our grow bed...that fills up with water every 40 minutes, the plants get a good drink of nutrient-rich water, and then it drains back to...the fish tank," Fields said.
A number of leaves and buds were already popping up from various plant beds throughout the room, which were all connected to one another by pipes with flowing water. The goldfish are there just to start the project off, Fields said, but will soon be replaced by either tilapia or rainbow trout.
Malloy said he'd vote for tilapia because they grow quicker, "(you can have) Tilapia Fridays," in the eatery he quipped.
The benefits of the project abound, according to ARC staff. Fields calls it "win, win, win, win."
Aquaponics is cost-effective and environment-friendly, staff say. The plants remove the need for buying expensive filters needed for fish farming, and the fish remove the need for fertilizer in hydroponic planting. The water used is about one-tenth of what is consumed in traditional planting, according to Fields.
The system also creates about ten times the produce of what would normally be grown in a garden the same size, Fields said.
"In this system you're bringing the nutrients to the plants, so they don't need that spacing that you would need in a garden for each plant," Fields said.
It should also speed the growth rates of the plants. Volunteer Julie Butler of Wallingford said that when the system is in full swing, heads of lettuce will take only about 3 weeks to 30 days to mature - versus the usual 45 to 60 days.
Pam Fields, the Executive Director of the Meriden-Wallingford ARC, and Steve Fields' sister, says that eventually the food produced by the aquaponic setup will not only go to the eatery, but will also feed the organization's own day programs, group homes, and will be able to be sold at Meriden's in the summer.
And like many of the ARC's programs, the employment and training opportunities the system affords is vital.
"We're excited because we can use it to train our individuals, they can work in there and earn a paycheck..." Pam Fields said, "The other thing we're hoping to do is to partner with the Meriden school system, with the kids to teach them the new technologies of growing."
Though it's currently housed in a small greenhouse attached to the building, Fields says the organization hopes to build a larger structure for aquaponic foods on the ARC property.