When it comes to business partnerships, an educational nonprofit and an established local landscaping business forging a relationship over solid fish waste might not seem likely. FoodChain and Henkel Denmark proved otherwise, offering a recycling model that is truly a win-win-win for the Lexington community.
Located in the old Rainbo bread factory on Sixth Street, FoodChain’s mission is to provide a connection between the community and fresh food through education and demonstration.
“Our building is located in a food desert [a place at least one mile from access to fresh food], so there’s really limited access, but there’s also limited knowledge around fresh food,” said Becca Self, executive director at FoodChain. “What we wanted to do was develop, over years, through a multiphased plan, a human-based food system. And as we did that, we wanted to be both innovative and inspirational but also really sustainable.”
The first phase of this achievement involved a 7,000-gallon aquaponics farm, the first of its kind in the state.
“Aquaponics is a way of cultivating food that takes advantage of the inherent symbiotic relationship between fish and plants,” explained Self.
The system is set up so that the fish waste, specifically the liquids and gases, serve as a natural fertilizer for the plants. The plants in return act as a natural filtration device to clean the water to go back to the fish.
“So it’s all a recirculating loop,” said Self. “And we use about 5 percent of the water compared to conventional agriculture, so it’s just a good steward of natural resources.”
Part of the goal was also being mindful of inputs and outputs and to make things as much of a closed loop as possible in an urban setting. To this end, FoodChain uses wastewater from West Sixth Brewery in their process. They also sell their tilapia and leafy greens to Smithtown Seafood, located on site. But even with all the recycling and recirculating, there is still an output of what Self describes as “fish sludge” that must be removed.
“The main reason we have to take it out is that we rely on gravity to carry all of the wastewater through the system,” explained Self.
With 500 fish in the system, that’s a lot of waste going through a small pipe, so clogs are a concern. The solution is found in two clarifying tanks, which collect the solid fish waste and leave the remaining water for reuse.
Self realized that in order to recycle the output of solid waste — essentially high-end, ready-to-go fertilizer — she needed to find someone with access to a lot of land.
“Thankfully there are entities in Lexington that do have a lot of access to green space and are also committed to helping the whole community do the right thing by recycling,” she said.
That’s where Henkel Denmark came in.
“I knew Henkel Denmark was a really responsible community-minded business and that they would see the inherent value of a project like this,” Self said.
Henkel Denmark has long been big on community involvement, with projects that range from the Wendi Bell Healing Garden at Markey Cancer Center to upcoming gardens for the new Shriner’s Children’s Hospital. As a landscape design and construction company specializing in residential, commercial and equine properties, Henkel Denmark has ample access to the land FoodChain needs.
“Deciding to partner with FoodChain was easy, but figuring out how to get 100 gallons of solid fish waste distributed was a bit more difficult,” said Bill Henkel, partner at Henkel Denmark.
Time is of the essence because the fish waste must be used the same day it is collected from FoodChain. The fish waste contains macro and micronutrients that are oxygenated and kept decomposing at FoodChain for about a month before distribution to Henkel Denmark.
“The fact that it’s biologically active is one of its unique characteristics,” explained Self. “It won’t be nearly as valuable if we let it become inert.”
That means, from a transport standpoint, it can’t be stored in a large container and spread when needed as the landscapers work on various projects.
The solution was 20, 5-gallon buckets and a coordinated schedule where FoodChain fills the buckets in the morning and Henkel Denmark picks them up and takes them out to apply it the same day. Each gallon weighs about 8 pounds so that’s 40 to 50 pounds per bucket.
“After we worked the system out, it really became pretty simple,” said Henkel.
The fish waste is beneficial in more ways than one.
“What this fish waste can do in the soil — with the micronutrients and microorganisms — that kind of combination is what soil is all about,” explained Henkel. “Lively soil has a balance and an environment of all of that so the roots get excited and the good stuff starts happening.”
His clients agree. Henkel Denmark offers the fish waste application at no charge — their part is purely recycling — however many of the places it has been used have benefited.
One of those places was Ashford Stud farm, home of Triple Crown and Breeder’s Cup-winner American Pharoah.
“We applied to 20 recently planted hornbeam trees in the stallion entry garden,” said Henkel.
The company also donated approximately 300 gallons to the city to be applied on the rain gardens on Main Street, specifically where the willow oaks are planted.
“We had lots of problems with the willow oaks, because you can imagine what is washing into the rain gardens from the sidewalks,” explained Henkel. “We had worked with the mayor on evaluating the condition of the trees and made recommendations on replacing about 40 percent of the trees.”
However, after the application of the recycled solid fish waste, the trees are improving and since then the city has only had to replace about five.
One of the later deposits was at a home on Hart Road where the soil had to be imported and placed over some compacted material. Newly installed hornbeam trees were struggling to survive in the environment.
“We did deep core aeration and backfilled with a porous soil mix before we added the fish manure. Artificial fertilizers would have done little good and perhaps more harm in this situation,” said Henkel. “Rebuilding the soil makes all the difference in the world. So I’m convinced it’s been an asset to the plants.”
It also provides a way to further recycle and provide benefits that continue to grow, even as the landscaping does.
“It’s a great example of private business and local nonprofits working together,” said Self.
“It takes a unique partnership, but, as you can see, when that partnership is forged, it really is a win, win, win across the board. “