At Utterback Farms, a lost art—with roots dating back to ancient times—has been found.
Whether it was the Aztec or cultures in the Far East who originated the practice, the process of growing food through aquaponics has many benefits for us in modern times, according to Dave McConnell, who owns Utterback Farms with his wife, Beverly.
“Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture, which is raising fish, and hydroponics (raising crops) in a water culture,” McConnell explains. “The great news about this process is that we use about 90 percent less water as opposed to conventional growing methods because we are constantly recycling and re-circulating our water. Our only water loss is from plant absorption and evaporation.”
McConnell adds that there are no chemicals involved, as the plants are fertilized by the fish byproducts. And since the majority of chemicals are toxic to fish, an aquaponics farmer wouldn’t dream of adding such things to their system. Also benefitting from this process is the fish, which get a clean environment after the water is filtered by the plants. “It’s totally chemical-free, and there’s no cheating, because you would kill your fish,” he notes. “It’s truly is a self-governing process. Initially, when we started, we set out to become certified organic, but we have learned that ‘locally grown’ and ‘chemical-free’ are labels that are just as strong in this industry.”
In addition, the soil-less process occurs in a climate-controlled environment—a greenhouse—so crops can be grown year-round, and McConnell points out that “there is no chance of E. coli or salmonella contamination, because neither comes from a cold-blooded animal like fish. And that's huge, especially when considering leafy greens and all of the recent recalls. Most people who are buying our type of products want to buy the healthiest foods they can possibly obtain. Aquaponics is just a healthier way to go—there is definitely less risk involved.”
Utterback Farms (the name originating from wife Beverly’s family, who acquired the land in Middletown, Mo., in the mid- to late-1800s) celebrated its one-year anniversary of using an aquaponics system in June. “More and more people are farming this way,” McConnell says. “There’s really been an explosion in this practice. My advice to those just getting into it is to start small by just growing vegetables for themselves and get to know how aquaponics works.”
At Utterback Farms, McConnell notes that they use a ‘deep-water culture,’ which is typically 10 to 12 inches of water, and have found many crops to succeed in this system. “Leafy greens—all of your lettuces, kales, bok choy and cabbages—have thrived for us,” he points out. “And we also have been successful with cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries and herbs like basil and cilantro.” One of the farm’s specialties is its lettuce mix. “It’s truly an artisan blend, with a mix of reds and greens, including romaine, oak leaf and lola rosa,” he explains. “It’s a high-quality combination, with the flavors melding together.”
The ‘fish of choice’ at the farm is tilapia, which was thoughtfully chosen for its ability to manage stress and for its high demand in today’s market, according to McConnell.
Locally, Utterback Farms products are available at Local Harvest Grocery and at select Dierbergs locations. When their bounty is great enough, the McConnells also will sell at Clayton, Ferguson and Tower Grove farmers markets. “Here of late, our orders have been exceeding our production, so we haven’t been able to attend many summer farmers markets,” McConnell says. “Right now, we have three greenhouses, along with what we call the ‘fish house.’ We plan to add a few more greenhouses this summer and fall, so we are growing to meet demand. We are just enjoying our family business and being in the outdoors. In fact, there’s really nothing about what we are doing that we don’t enjoy!”