By ISAAC TROTTER
For The Mahomet Citizen
Two long-time friends and Mahomet business owners have teamed up to start a new way of farming.
Located on the north side of Bellflower, Central Illinois Aquaponics Co. is providing fresh vegetables year-round.
Founder David Wickboldt owns Harmony Technical Solutions, Inc., but when he learned about aquaponics, it was something he couldn’t ignore.
"I heard about aquaponics over three years ago," Wickboldt said. "It kind of lit a bug in my head that we could grow plants and we wouldn’t have to weed. This is pretty awesome."
The plants are housed in a 20-foot by 108-foot greenhouse. Unlike typical soil farming, the plants grow in water and are nourished by more than 100 tilapia.
"It works as a symbiotic system where the fish provide waste, which gets converted into nitrate, which is what the plants primarily feed on," Wickboldt said.
Success in aquaponics requires an extraordinary system.
"We do aquaponics, but part of it is a recirculating aquaculture system," Wickboldt said. "And what that means is we take the water and recirculate it. It’s called a zero-waste system."
Co-owner Tim Culver runs Classic Plumbing, Inc. in Mahomet, and his work background was essential in the construction of the operation.
"There’s a lot of plumbing that goes into aquaponics," Culver said. "It has to be a system that’s able to deliver all the nutrients from our fish to our plants and is also energy efficient."
There have been incredible results.
"We keep this facility going year-round," Wickboldt said. "Everything has been growing for over two years. The tomato plants are over two years old and they’ve been producing the entire time. The pepper plants have been producing non-stop since February of last year."
You can find produce from Central Illinois Aquaponics Co. for sale at the monthly farmers’ market in Saybrook as well as the downtown Champaign farmers’ market.
Right now, the greenhouse produces bell peppers, lettuce, swiss chard, tomatoes, hot peppers, carrots, cucumbers, celery, kale and radishes.
"We’re starting to get very consistent with our lettuces," Wickboldt said. "I love our swiss chard. It’s massive. Celery is a popular one. When we take that to the market, we usually sell out of it."
The vegetables flourish in their climate-controlled, bug-free home.
"At maximum capacity, we can put out 300 to 400 heads of lettuce per week," Wickboldt said. "You can kind of get an idea of how much food we can produce."
Even in the freezing Illinois winters, the production isn’t significantly hindered.
"It’s slightly slower in the winter," Wickboldt said. "You may add 20 percent longer. But that is mainly due to light."
Bigger plans are on the horizon.
"Our big step is really getting our second greenhouse going with fruiting crops," Wickboldt said. "People are showing a lot of interest in what we’re planning to grow there. We’re also trying to market ourselves and get ourselves in local restaurants. The appeal of having fresh food year-round is pretty high for some of the local chefs."
Wickboldt and Culver’s vision was to bring more fresh food to the area.
"It’s fresh, it’s local and it’s really good," Culver said. "Our food today is not nearly as healthy as it was 25 years ago. We’re not eating as much fresh food. So if we’re able to produce tomatoes and salad greens year-round, then people will get healthy food that’s fresh and local."
Time will ultimately tell, but aquaponics could be the future of farming.
"I think we can actually be more efficient than soil farmers because there is less labor involved in growing the product," Wickboldt said. "When you’re having to deal with planting, irrigating, weeding, that all happens here as part of the system. So we have a lot less labor involved."
"This a premium product," Wickboldt said.
Wickboldt and Culver have combined their respective talents flawlessly.
"It has worked because we are a great team," Culver said. "It has also worked because (Wickboldt) has done his work on the research end of it and he understands how the process works. We never ever give up."
"I like growing stuff," Wickboldt said. "I like to eat good food, and when you can grow it yourself and it’s fresh and you can come pick it off of a vine or a tree, or in our case, take it out of the water, there’s just nothing like it."