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May 8, 2017

Fauquier lettuce growers depend on fish and water

Delaplane Aquaponics
• What: Small business that grows lettuce using water and fish.

• Owners: Jake Hall, Hank Woolman and Daniel Woolman.

• Started: In 2015 near Delaplane.

• Varieties grown: Boston Bibb, New Red Fire, dwarf Romaine and Oak Leaf lettuce; kale and basil. (Varieties for sale vary.)

• Sold: Gentle Harvest in Marshall; Red Truck Bakery in Marshall and Warrenton; Upperville Country Store; Barrel Oak Winery.

• Price: $3 a head.

• Start-up investment: $25,000.

• Facebook: Click here.
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Staff Journalist
Bears, aphid infestations and dying fish represent a few challenges the Delaplane aquaponic lettuce farmers have faced since starting their business 18 months ago.

But, the trio of entrepreneurs has persevered to grow fresh, plump lettuce year-round in Northern Fauquier County.

Jake Hall and brothers Hank Woolman and Daniel Woolman, co-owners of Delaplane Aquaponics, have lots of patience.

In June 2015, they launched the small business that grows lettuce and other vegetables using water and fish.

Aquaponics combines hydroponics — growing plants in water, not soil — and aquaculture — “fish farming.”

“It’s been stressful, but fun,” Hank Woolman, 34, said.

Daniel Woolman came up with the idea to start the business and took aquaponics classes in California. His brother and Mr. Hall, his best friend from Fauquier High School, joined the effort.

The partners invested about $25,000 to start the part-time business, buying equipment and building a greenhouse at Briar Hill Farm, Mr. Hall’s fiancée’s family land.

Mr. Hall, 31, and Hank Woolman have full-time jobs at a telecommunications company, installing security systems at schools in Prince William County.

They regard their part-time farming duties as a nice change of pace from their day jobs.

“It’s a fun hobby for us,” Hank Woolman said. “I’d kind of like to get into farming. I like the different, not just standard farming. I’ve always liked to grow plants in gardens, and this seemed like a good fit.”

Daniel Woolman has moved to Colorado, but he returns every few months to help with the business.

Delaplane Aquaponics sells mostly Boston Bibb lettuce for $3 a head at five retail locations — Gentle Harvest in Marshall, Red Truck Bakery in Marshall and Warrenton, The Upperville Country Store and Barrel Oak Winery.

“It stays fresh for a long time and we like that,” The Upperville Country Store Manager MegAnn Slater said.

The Red Truck Bakery in Marshall has sold the lettuce for about three months.

“It looks so fresh, and I love that it’s grown just up the road,” owner Brian Noyes said. “It tastes good.

“I think a good Boston Bibb lettuce, especially local and fresh, is really hard to find,” Mr. Noyes said. “It’s a great lettuce. We don’t have a lot of room to sell it at each store. But, we are trying to always have it on hand.

“We try to get a dozen heads a week” in Marshall, he explained. “We are pretty wiped out by the end of the weekend.

“One reason I’m selling it is because I like these brothers’ stories. They’re so gung-ho about what they’re doing,” Mr. Noyes said. “I really love to support people like that, following their passions of doing fresh, local food or produce.”

The aquaponic system uses about 5,000 gallons of recycled water, constantly flowing through a system of tanks and pipes inside the greenhouse.

About 60 bluegills, koi and goldfish live in a 360-gallon food-grade tub. Their excrement fertilizes the lettuce.

That ammonia-rich water gets broken down by bacteria and filtered through expanded shale rock beds as part of the process.

The nutrient-rich water then reaches the lettuce plants that grow on foam “rafts.”

“Basically the plants clean the water for the fish and the fish provide nutrients for the plants,” Hank Woolman explained. “We’ve never eaten (the fish) and don’t plan to sell them, but eventually we will probably replace them and have a big fish fry.”

He starts the process by growing non-GMO seeds in soil at his house for about 14 days. He takes the seedlings to the greenhouse and transplants them into the aquaponic system.

The 30-by-50-foot greenhouse has the capability to grow 2,044 heads of lettuce at a time, year-round.

It takes about 40 days to grow their lettuce.

“We’re shaving off 20 days of a normal head of lettuce grown in soil,” Hank Woolman said. “We can get better than that. You’re supposed to be able to grow this in 28 days.”

The aquaponic system also recycles the water, using less of the precious commodity than plants grown in soil.

The entrepreneurs have overcome several trials and errors.

“Murphy’s Law runs this greenhouse,” Mr. Woolman said.

They use organic methods to keep ants and aphids away from the vegetables.

“If you were to put any pesticides into the system, it would kill the fish,” Hank Woolman said.

They recently added an electric fence around the greenhouse to keep bears at bay.

A local aquaponics mentor, Matt Ferrell, who lives near Winchester, and “ ‘The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Aquaponic Gardening’ have helped us out a lot as well,” Mr. Hall said.

In the last year, the business produced approximately 5,000 heads of lettuce — less than half the full growing potential because of two aphid infestations.

But, the business partners continue to overcome habitat challenges and hope to grow their clientele.

“We plan on getting distributors involved down the road,” Hank Woolman said.

“We’d like to provide for our area,” Mr. Hall said.
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Kay G. · May 11, 2017 at 8:14 am
How fabulous! I look forward to buying some of these lettuces!
BJ · May 8, 2017 at 10:29 am
With aphids you need NATIVE ladybugs (not Asian) or garlic spray, it works on our roses anyway. Cool endeavor and wave of the future.
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