In This Toms River Greenhouse, Fish Help Grow Organic Lettuce

Producing aquaphonic greens is a group effort for the family behind HS Farms.

Photo by James J. Connolly

Heather and Mike Scannell started growing aquaponic lettuce in 2016 in their garage. Their three children gobbled it up. Next, the Toms River couple moved their garage system to their backyard. After a successful growing season, Mike, a financial advisor, cut back his work hours to focus on growing more greens.

Heather Scannell places a lettuce seedling into a styrofoam clip that will hold it in one of the holes on a floating raft (pictured below). In 55 days, the sprout will develop into a perfect head of lettuce.  Photo by James J. Connolly

Today, Heather and Mike operate HS Farms, the state’s only organically certified home-delivery aquaponics farm. Aquaponics is an agricultural method that combines aquaculture (growing aquatic animals) with hydroponics (growing plants in water). This symbiotic process can yield a perfect head of lettuce in about 55 days, much faster than the average 90 days for lettuce grown the traditional way, in dirt. 

At HS Farms, the process starts with fish. The two 300-gallon tanks in the Scannells’ 1,500-square-foot greenhouse each hold about 50 fish—a mix of goldfish, cod and tilapia. Their waste feeds tens of thousands of minuscule shrimp in a smaller, connected tank. The shrimps’ digestive systems and bacteria help convert the waste to nitrates; the nitrate-rich water then spills over a tank of clay balls, crushed clam shells and worms, further enriching and filtering the water. 

Finally, the water is fed into troughs covered with floating foam rafts.

Michael and Heather Scannell with children, from left, Allison, 12; Ryan, 11; and Jacqueline, 8. Photo by James J. Connolly

“The process is chemical free and entirely sustainable,” says Mike. Seedlings of spring greens, romaine, butter-crunch lettuce and kale are clipped in place through holes in the rafts, their roots dangling in the enriched, pH-balanced water. The resulting produce tastes incredibly fresh. “I haven’t bought store-bought lettuce in two years,” says Heather.

Michael and daughter, Allison, survey one of the 300-gallon fish tanks. Photo by James J. Connolly

Mike tends the crop daily. Heather, a physical therapist, puts in several hours each week, planting seeds and separating seedlings. On weekends, Allison, 12; Ryan, 11; and Jacqueline, 8; all pitch in, planting, feeding the fish or, in Jacqueline’s case, digging for baby worms nestled deep in the clay balls. “I love worms,” she says. “I name them all Squirmy and Fasty.” 

The Scannells deliver their produce to families in Ocean and Monmouth counties. Mixed greens run $4 for 5 ounces. Their organic lettuce is also available at the four Dean’s Natural Food Market locations in New Jersey.

Heather and Mike plan to build two more greenhouses within the next several months. “Our goal,” says Mike, “is to grow everything you need to make a salad.”

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