ENOSBURG — During blisteringly cold days in Franklin County, a veritable oasis lies in the Cold Hollow Mountains between Enosburg and Bakersfield: the “Finn & Roots” aquaponics greenhouse farm.
First built in 2014 by Shawn and Elizabeth Robinson and sold to the current owners in 2019, the system uses the water from three tanks full of tilapia to cycle nutrients through pipes to feed greens, herbs and cucumbers.
Now, the farm is owned and operated by Holly Counter Beaver, her husband Vincent Beaver and her sister Heather Counter.
The trio moved from Colorado, working in tech and healthcare before deciding to go in on the aquaponics farm after seeing it for sale online. While they might not have any direct farm experience, Counter Beaver said her family in Colorado are fifth-generation farmers.
The sisters are focused entirely on the farm, while Vincent Beaver keeps working remotely at the same job from Colorado until the farm’s finances are steadier.
Working in high tech and user experience for 25 years, Counter Beaver said the farm is the perfect challenge for her, balancing the water systems, grow lights, harvest cycles before finally selling to specialty grocery stores in northern Vermont.
The farm is a decoupled aquaponics system, as the fish are in separate tanks from the plants and water is pumped through the roots. Similar to using a blend of cow manure on fields, fish waste is full of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that fertilizes plants.
At Finn & Roots, the water is pumped from the fish tanks into a secondary tank full of bacteria that will break down the waste in the water to the beneficial nutrients, before the water is pumped through the plant roots.
In a traditional aquaponics system, the fish are kept directly underneath the plants and in hydroponics, the plant roots are suspended in the water and chemicals are artificially added to the system.
Currently, the farm produces cucumbers, fully-rooted basil plants and leaves, microgreens and a few types of lettuce and large greens.
The stars of the show, for the process to work as effectively as it does, are the fish. Three tanks, holding hundreds of gallons of water, are home to an unknown number of tilapia lurking in shaded waters.
How many fish exactly?
“Everybody always asks!” Heather Counter said, while harvesting some lettuce near the tanks.
“We have no idea,” Counter Beaver said, tossing fish food towards the dozens of scales and tails breaking the surface of the water.
Along with the produce, the previous owners planned on selling the tilapia, so they had a nursery tank holding thousands of fish. Unfortunately, the plan didn’t go accordingly and they were unable to butcher the fish at the level they intended.
“I think the previous owners realized, given our location, we don’t have the equipment to process here, and it’s really hard to catch tilapia,” Counter Beaver said. “They’re smart, and they’re fast.”
When Counter Beaver first came in, she said the fish area was a mess, with way too many fish in cramped conditions. As members of the cichlid family, native to the freshwaters of Africa, they’re similar to the bluegills and sunfish of Vermont.
When the farm officially changed hands in late 2019, the Counter Beaver trio planned on selling the fish to a few markets and restaurants, but COVID-19 hit and they lost the restaurant business.
They keep the fish on now as permanent fertilizer factories and pets, with no risk of being harvested. All three farmers are vegan, so the fish are living the good life with non-GMO foods, fresh tanks and more space.
The farm also bottles and sells liquid fish wastewater fertilizers that can be spread on gardens.
The fish water is automatically pumped through the plant root systems, with each plant physically rooted into a square of dirt barely bigger than a person’s finger.
The roots will grow into the pipes, with some, like the cucumber vine roots, stretching up to five feet away from the stem of the plant.
The plants and pipes are fitted on to rolling tables about four feet off the ground so the sisters can easily move between rows and harvest.
Live heads of oak lettuce are pulled up and packed with roots intact, with the tagline that the roots keep the plant fresher and tastier longer. Other greens are mixed together for an artisanal blend, basil plants are sold as cuttings or with roots intact, and self-pollinating cucumbers are cut fresh from the vine.
The greens take an average of 8 weeks from seed to harvest, on account of hyper-accurately tracked fertilization, lighting, temperature and humidity. Grow lights counteract winter’s decreased sunlight, heaters keep the greenhouse in the mid-70s, and misters along with the fish tanks keep the building at around 60% humidity.
However, these perfect growing conditions can cause perfect pest growing conditions as well, with the farm always prepared for a yearly winter battle against mildew and other leafy diseases.
“It’s not so much a problem in the summertime, because it’s not cold,” Counter Beaver said. “When it’s cold, and you have a high level of humidity, your crops are a lot more susceptible to different kinds of diseases.”
Because of this, the farm tracks humidity and temperature to a science.
For Counter Beaver, the technology and problem-solving is her bread-and-butter. She can control when shade curtains will deploy to cool the fish or plants, when water pipes open or close, and power on dehumidifiers when it’s too humid and misters when it’s too dry.
Outside, a 30-yard stretch of solar panels help power the buildings.
Now, Counter Beaver said they’re looking to expand to other crops and work with local organizations like the University of Vermont agricultural extension.
“I love working with those kinds of people to solve problems and see how we can do things better,” Counter Beaver said. “Especially in light of climate change and other things we as humanity are facing already, not so much in this part of the world but in other parts of the world definitely.”
In Franklin County, Finn & Roots products can be found at Wood Meadow Market in Enosburg and Rail City Market in St Albans. In northern Chittenden County, they sell to both City Markets and Healthy Living in Burlington, Sweet Clover Market in Essex Junction and locations in Williston and Shelburne.
This story is the second in a series highlighting Franklin County’s most unique and non-traditional farms. Got an idea of a farm to highlight? Tell John Custodio at email@example.com.
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