Former air craft mechanic Patrick Durkin always loved gardening and fish, so creating an aquaponic farm, Fruit of Life, on Long Island was an easy leap for the Bayport native.
“It is combining two of my passions,” says Durkin. He was initially drawn to the process because of its limited environmental impact and multiple revenue streams. Although aquaponic systems are complex, the concept behind them is simple: plants are grown hydroponically and feed on the by-products of the fish. This “closed loop” allows farmers to sell the plants and the fish.
Although the benefits are numerous — faster growing times, 90 percent less water use than normal agriculture, completely organic — it is an involved set up: water must be directed through multiple filters that are kept clean using different types of natural bacteria. Also, since the system is closed if something happens in one of the tanks, like a fish becoming sick, it can rapidly affect the whole system. Since Durkin is familiar with fish and their diseases, he worries more about burst pipes.
“To run this greenhouse it is four hours of work a day for one person,” he says. “On harvest days, you bring in a friend to help.”
For now, Durkin is growing French heirloom butterhead lettuce and wasabi. He hopes one day to just grow wasabi; the plant retails for around $140 per pound. But since it takes two years for it to mature, he is starting with the faster growing lettuce and will slowly rotate his crops over to the more valuable vegetable.
The millennial’s biggest project to date was a 10-gallon tank that grew basil and parsley with neon tetras, but he isn’t worried about the leap from 10 gallons to 64,000. “You need to be a jack of all trades,” says Durkin, who enlisted the help of a friend to build the system. He is leasing what was a tilapia farm, which meant that the structure came with eight 8,000-gallon tanks that can hold up 28,000 fish.
Admitting that it is a bit “nerve-wracking” to be a first-time business owner, Durkin plans to sell his produce wholesale to high-end restaurants on the East End and eventually at farmers markets in New York City. The farm’s location in Manorville is a “good set up” to cater to both markets.
“Aquaponic farming has been around for a millennia,” says Durkin. “The Egyptians were farming aquaponically.”
Durkin has started a Kickstarter for his project. He’s looking to raise $10,000 by Jan. 1, 2016.