Symbiosis: it’s the process by which two or more different organisms live in harmony, each helping the other to survive.
At the new aquaponics greenhouse farm recently built and opened by Meals By Grace and Fill Ministries, the idea of symbiosis is brought to life in a way that they say will produce fresh vegetables, fruit and fish for years to come.
The local organizations cut the ribbon Tuesday on its new 6-acre greenhouse project at their farm in east Forsyth. So far, the aquaponics farm consists of one greenhouse that is 156 feet by 35 feet, but according to Suellen Daniels, executive director and co-founder of Meals By Grace, they have plans for as many as eight more greenhouses, just like the first.
Eventually, she said she hopes that the farm becomes a place that not only produces food for those in need and for sale to farmers markets and restaurants but also provides a place for families to come and learn a skill that they can survive off of.
“We want to be a model for what we are teaching our families,” Daniels said, “so those families can come here and learn job skills they will be able to take anywhere in the world and get living wage jobs so they can get better for their family; that’s our goal.”
After the ribbon was cut on the project, Daniels led a procession of local community members through the greenhouse talking about how the system works and why.
The main area of the greenhouse contains three long rectangular bays of water, each a few inches deep that contain 75 4-by-8 lengths of holed plastic foam floating in the water. Eventually, a single plant will be in a small cup in each hole.
“That means at any one time, if everything were planted, there would be 11,625 plants growing in different stages,” Daniels said. “With six harvests a year, that’s just under 70,000 plants. That’s a lot.”
According to Stephen Daniels, Suellen Daniels’ husband and Meals By Grace co-founder, their current goal is to plant new plants every week so the greenhouse is constantly in use.
Stephen Daniels said that their method of growing can’t make the plants grow faster; that’s impossible. But they can make sure to put the plants in the best possible environment for them to flourish.
“You can’t change the speed at which the speed germinates or grows,” Stephen Daniels said. “It’s genetics (that) control that ... We do control the environment here, so everything should operate as an optimal environment.”
Compared to a traditional farm that plants in rows in the earth, Stephen Daniels said, the greenhouse could produce three times as many plants with four more crop rotations per year.
“You get a lot bigger bang out of your square footage,” he said.
He said that one downside to this method of farming is the large upfront costs but that the extra production power will more than cover those costs, adding that this method uses only 5 percent of the water a traditional farm uses.
As the procession reached the back of the greenhouse, darting shapes could be seen in large blue tanks of water. They were young growing fish.
Daniels explained that water is pumped in a cycle between the bays of plants and the huge fish tanks. The fish water provides nutrients for the plants, and the plants in turn help provide a natural filter for the fish tanks.
Simply put, she said, the fish feed the plants nutrients, and the plants help keep the fish clean.
On top of growing basil, kale, spinach, lettuces and cherry tomatoes, the greenhouse is growing 1,000 tilapia and 100 bass in the fish tanks, with plans to grow “non-bush” berries like strawberries in the future.
Suellen Daniels said that the fish in the tanks can eventually be eaten by Fill Ministry patrons or sold at markets to help buy other foods that Meals By Grace needs.
She said that Meals By Grace got its start in 2011 after a sudden financial collapse and years of her and her husband struggling to recover their lives.
“We ended up with seven part-time jobs,” Suellen Daniels said. “We had friends in the community and our church that just rallied around us and held us up and helped us with food, because we didn’t have a way to access food. We were working so much, when the local food pantries were open, a random day here and a random hour there, we couldn’t get there to get food.”
She said that for years, Meals By Grace has delivered cooked food to people in Forsyth, starting as a ragtag bunch of volunteers using canned goods in Suellen Daniels’ kitchen. Today, a sprawling ministry with thousands of volunteers touches countless lives.
“That’s just incredible to me,” she said. “To start it in our kitchen with one family of three … and here we are eight years later; 33,000 people were fed last year, and we had over 15,000 volunteers.”
If everything works out as planned, Suellen Daniels said that they hope to move their base of operations to the farm in east Forsyth and keep expanding until no one in Forsyth goes to bed hungry.
“We want our families to do more than just survive,” she said, “we want them to thrive. This is the beginning of that.”