Organic producers reveal what’s possible

FARRMS tour features aquaponics, produce farm

Emily How with the North Dakota Extension Service looks over cherry tomatoes growing in the high tunnel at Beagle Hill Organic Farm, Minot, Monday.

From vegetables and orchards to aquaponics, two Minot-area growers are looking to demonstrate what is possible in the local organic food market.

The Foundation for Agricultural and Rural Resources Management and Sustainability (FARRMS) organized a Minot-area tour Monday featuring Beagle Hill Organic Farm and Barfield Organic Produce & Fish.

Robert Barfield’s prototype aquaponics operation just launched in his garage and won’t be in plant production mode for several more weeks. In the meantime, the 10 colorful koi fish in the 300-gallon tank are getting acclimated to their environment as they prepare to start producing nutrient-rich water for the future plants.

Hydroponics is a system for growing plants in a water-based nutrient solution rather than soil. Aquaculture involves growing fish in a closed unit. Aquaponics is a circular system in which the fish produce a waste that bacteria break down into safe nutrients for plants in that hydroponic system. The plants purify the water, which then goes back to the fish.

Barfield, who formerly was involved in hydroponics, said he began studying aquaponics about two and half years ago.

Participants in Monday’s FARRMS tour at Beagle Hill Organic Farm enter a high tunnel for tomatoes, where Paul Lepp grows 15 varieties of tomatoes and dabbles in other crops, such as ginger and lemon cucumbers.

“I would like to turn this into a commercial greenhouse, but I wanted to start small,” he said.

Working with Dakota College at Bottineau, he became acquainted with Quinn Renfandt, then FARRMS intern with the college. Renfandt, who has been handling the technical side of bringing Barfield’s vision to fruition, also operates a farm and has been active in farmers market and growers associations.

The aquaponics system at his rural Burlington home, southwest of Minot, is a miniature version of a larger commercial setup, funded with the help of a Vocational Rehabilitation grant.

“The more I get into it, the more I enjoy it because it’s very relaxing to sit there and watch my fish,” Barfield said. “What I want to do later on is get into working with rehabilitation through Disabled Veterans – I am a disabled veteran – and work with them to help them reintegrate back into society.”

“I have a personal philosophy and passion for understanding how to set up more robust food systems,” Renfandt said. “It all comes from trying to overcome the disparity we see with food deserts, and that kind of goes deeper to a level of understanding food sovereignty and what that could mean for a population. And so a system like this, aquaponics in itself, represents probably the most advanced form and most efficient form of agriculture humans have ever discovered and been able to harness.”

Standing in his produce packing area Monday, Paul Lepp of Beagle Hill Organic Farm holds tomatoes that have been picked to ripen in crates.

Although the method of agriculture dates back thousands of years, modern technology takes the model to a new level, he said.

“You can do this anywhere, and in North Dakota that means you can grow year round if you’re inside of a greenhouse or inside some type of – what I would refer to this facility as – a mini-warehouse,” Renfandt said.

An aquaponics system can produce eight to 10 times as much produce in the same space as a regular garden, and the nutrient density will be much higher, while using about 95% less water, he said.

“My involvement and philosophy is to learn how this all works and identify what technology we can use to scale this, and then help as many places around the world as possible over the next 20 years of my career. So this is just nice little way of jumping into that,” he said.

Barfield’s system experiments with different hydroponic techniques that are suitable for raising different types of plants. Koi fish are being used for their beauty and nonaggressive tendencies, but the system could use and produce a meat fish for market. Barfield said the intent with the produce is to get into the school lunch program.

Quinn Renfandt talks about the aquaponics prototype recently set up near Minot. At far left is a 300-gallon fish tank and at right is some of the hydroponics being used in the operation.

Participants in the FARRMS tour also visited Beagle Hill Organic Farm, where Paul Lepp grows 14 varieties of tomatoes in a 14-foot by 32-foot high tunnel using drip lines for irrigation. He also maintains regular gardens of vegetables and flowers and tends to a food forest or permaculture orchard. The orchard includes apples, pears, cranberries, walnut, rhubarb and strawberries, and he also has a peach tree elsewhere on the property.

“I get pretty excited about gardening and organic gardening and permaculture,” said Lepp, who moved to his current four acres southeast of Minot about 10 years ago. In 2019, he started the business side of the operation.

“I just really enjoyed the farmers market, just interacting with all the people, and they enjoyed the produce. So that was a real incentive, and I figured I could sort of finance all the things I want to do here if I could go to the farmers market,” said Lepp, who is a member of the Minot Farmers Market that sells in Oak Park.

He also engages in online sales and is working to organize a sales model that works like a pop-up farmers market using Facebook. Sales occur online, with distribution at a set location at a set time.

Lepp wants to expand his sales to restaurants and possibly schools to broaden his selling season.

He extends his season by growing produce such as lettuce and carrots in the high tunnel over winter, using solar panels and an underground heat storage system. His future plans include erecting a second high tunnel and building a greenhouse for growing a wider range of produce.

Lepp spoke about issues such as licensing, pest control, composting, irrigation and water management, harvest and produce storage and the technical issues in growing organically. He hopes to obtain organic certification for Beagle Hill by next summer.

“A traditional organic transition from conventional farming, having used fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides, is three years,” he said. “The idea is that you have to allow time for those pesticides and herbicides to degrade and make it out of the food chain. I’ve never used any of that. I’ve always been organic, so this is more a recognition of how I’ve always grown.”


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