Community support helps sprout Brunswick aquaponics greenhouse

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BRUNSWICK — Cara Stadler and her mother Cecile are known for building a Maine restaurant empire: Tao Yuan in Brunswick, and Bao Bao Dumpling House and the recently opened Lio in Portland.

But for the past five years, the Stadlers have also been hard at work trying to build an ecosystem that will provide food for all of their restaurants.

The fruit of their labor is visible in a structure behind Tao Yuan on Pleasant Street, which that will eventually house a rooftop aquaponics greenhouse known as Canopy Farms.

It will also bridge the gap between being a nonprofit and for-profit enterprise.

In an interview last week, Kate Holcomb, project manager for Canopy Farms, said “the most basic thing to know” about aquaponics is that the process grows fish and plants “on a loop.”

“The fish waste is converted into fertilizer for the plants by beneficial bacteria,” she said. “And then the water flows through the plant beds, and the plants use those nutrients, then filter the water so that it can return to the fish. Basically what you’re doing is trying to make this little ecosystem happy.”

In the case of the Brunswick building, tanks in the basement will grow rainbow trout. Holcomb said the greenhouse will start by growing greens, primarily Asian greens, to be used in the Stadlers’ restaurants. Later, the plan is to move into growing more “experimental crops” and plants not typically found in the area.

The structure, which was approved by the Planning Board two years ago, will also feature a cafe on the first floor. Holcomb said construction crews are in the process of completing the interior of the building, including the aquaponics systems.

It is her hope, she added, that the systems will be finished in “the next couple of months,” though she also said she’s not sure when the facility will be able to begin production.

In the meantime, the Canopy Farms team has launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowd-source funding for the project from the community.

Its goal is to raise $25,000. The campaign had raised nearly $11,000 as of this week.

Each level of donation is accompanied by a “thank you” gift, the highest of which is private dining at Lio for 20 people, reserved for those who pledge $10,000 or more.

Some “major expenses” listed on the fundraising site include a monitoring and control system priced at $6,000, water filtration and supplements for $5,500, additional grow beds for “experimental education projects” for $9,000 and other items to support student projects like water test kits and safety gear, for $4,500.

Holcomb also said the goal is to become a “demonstration site” for energy efficient technology, which tends to have “higher upfront costs,” and thus requires some community support.

She added Canopy Farms is one of “a cluster of organizations and farms” around the state that are trying to develop technology for sustainable, year-round growing.

“Obviously in Maine, when people are trying to grow year round, there’s really high energy costs because it’s cold and dark,” Holcomb said. “We have (an) energy curtain (that) provides shade in the summer so it doesn’t get too hot, and provides essentially a blanket to keep warm air in the winter, so it minimizes heat.”

The greenhouse also has a radiant heat floor, and may be outfitted with solar panels to help reduce energy use.

The structure is also unique, Holcomb said, because of how it will incorporate a kitchen that produces “a lot of heat,” and a greenhouse that requires it, so integrating all of the systems requires balance.

Canopy Farms also plans to incorporate an educational component.

Holcomb is lining up a college intern from the University of Southern Maine for the fall, and said she has been in contact with local high schools about employing high school interns, too.

“Allowing extra equipment, extra space (and) some employee time to help it be a good place for those internships (is important),” she said.

What Holcomb and the Stadlers don’t want to do, however, is ask financial supporters to “fund the businesses.”

Although Canopy Farms is situated behind Tao Yuan, she said the restaurant and the farm project are separate entities. Part of the way Tao is supporting Canopy Farms, she said, is through acting as a “guaranteed buyer” for its produce.

Holcomb said the Kickstarter funding will help Canopy Farms be more than just “a production space” for food, but also an educational space and potential provider of healthy food for some local schools.

The monitoring equipment sought on the Kickstarter page, for instance, will allow workers to collect data on the operations of the facility and report it to partner organizations, she said.

Another key part of the business model, Holcomb added, is that Canopy Farms is an L3C, or low-profit limited liability company.

“Essentially what that means is … we’re a business, but we’re a mission-driven business,” she said. “Our goal is to make enough money to be operational (and) to be this community space for development and sustainable agriculture.”

Ultimately, she said, she is excited about the level of support the project has already received from the community.

“It’s been a lot of people that have pledged so far that know the business, and know us, and know how much we’ve been putting into this and all the things we hope to do with it,” she said. “So it’s great, I’m excited to try to get the word out a little bit more to keep the momentum going.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

A Kickstarter campaign is helping to finance the final pieces of technology for Canopy Farms, an aquaponic greenhouse being built behind Tao Yuan in Brunswick.

When completed, Canopy Farms in Brunswick will grow rainbow trout and primarily Asian greens, and offer an educational component for local college and high school interns.

Kate Holcomb, project manager for Canopy Farms, stands inside the space that will house its rooftop aquaponics greenhouse July 20.

Kate Holcomb stands in front of cement fish tanks in the basement of Canopy Farms, which will be used to grow rainbow trout.

Canopy Farms will grow rainbow trout and primarily Asian greens to be used in the Stadlers’ three restaurants, as well as house a café and offer an educational component for local college and high school interns.

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