March 14, 2017
Grads bet the farm on fish poop
Sustainable urban farming business developed at HELIX
When Brandon Hebor and Steven Bourne quit their day jobs to start a green sustainable venture together last summer, you could say they had a bigger fish to fry.
Brandon, 24, and Steven, 25, are graduates of Seneca’s Green Business Management certificate program. Their office these days is a narrow shipping container parked at the Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto. Most of the square footage inside is taken up by an aquaponics system they built themselves, including two 300-galon fish tanks.
The fish — about 100 tilapia and fingerlings so far — are the engines of Ripple Farms, a food-growing project based on fish feces.
“The first time I brought my mom a head of lettuce from another aquaponics farm I had visited and told her it was grown from fish poop, she was like, ‘Yuk.’ But then we ate it and the taste was incredible. It had a texture, it was crunchy,” says Brandon, a longtime hobby farmer with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science.
Ripple Farms features the first urban farming unit of its kind in Canada with a shipping container and a greenhouse on top. Since the fish started cycling less than two months ago, the first crops of arugula micoleaf, buttercrunch lettuce, chard flamingo, frisee endive, little gem lettuce, mustard sprouts, purple basil and sunflower sprouts have sprouted and are growing well.
Aquaponics combines traditional aquaculture (raising fish) with hydroponics (soil-less plant cultivation) to produce organic food in urban settings. The fish poop, which is ammonia, is filtered and then passed through a bio-reactor where it is converted to nitrites and then nitrates, a primary fertilizer.
“This is a pilot study project that involves building both a scientific and a business case,” says Steven, who holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration specializing on sustainability and communication.
“Water testing is done every day and we are monitoring the actual growth time in this system."
Shortly after they met through a mutual friend, Steven and Brandon brought their idea to Seneca’s on-campus incubator, HELIX, to develop it.
“What HELIX has done for us is in a word, connections,” Steven explains. “It’s word of mouth. We’ve built our networks through meeting business developers and investors for funding opportunities. We’ve been involved with Startup Weekend and been able to bounce ideas off other people and vice versa.”
Like many successful business ventures, Ripple Farms has been a leap of faith.
“We sunk our savings into this. We put our money where the mouth is,” Steven says. “When times are rough, and there have already been, we just have to keep our head up and ask our mentors for guidance. There’s no stopping us.”
Even though revenue needs to be generated soon, Ripple Farms is a social enterprise dedicated to putting people before profits.
“We know we can give so much more to the world by pursuing our passion and so we’ve invested in ourselves,” Brandon says.
Brandon and Steven plan to expand the Ripple network by adding more locations of their urban farming unit. They hope to partner with local chefs and restaurants to sell their produce and fish as a way of addressing food security and sustainable eating.
For now, “I can’t wait for the basils to come along,” Brandon says. “It’s going to smell magical up there.”
Since launching last November, Ripple Farms has supplied its produce to top restaurants in the Toronto area that value a “farm-to-fork” motto. It has received a $30,000 SmartStart grant from the Ontario Centres of Excellence to implement new technologies, increase productivity and create opportunities for ongoing research and unit sales. As well, $15,000 from The Greenbelt Fund will improve its presence at local markets and help Brandon and Steven with Local Lime Syrup, a new product line made from a waste byproduct of their system to “close the loop” on sustainable farming practices. Best of all, a Ripple unit is now operating at Newnham Campus and tied to programs at Seneca with a focus on Applied Research and Innovation.