Ed Osmun is shy—that much we have in common. The first day I showed up with my microphone in tow I could see it in the way he bowed his head. But just as much as Ed is shy, I am determined, and today, finally, we got his story out. It starts with tilapia—ready for market, and fat.
These tilapia are the main event on Ed's farm. They arrive tiny—half a gram—from New Mexico. A breeder there selects for uniformity and growth, which makes Ed's life easier when it comes to culling and the eventual harvest. The fish spend their roughly nine months of life in nine large, half-dumpster size tanks—growing up in shades from orange to black into weights a pound and a quarter and on. As they live and eat they of course create waste, but Ed has a system in place—a growing method called aquaponics—that allows him to use this waste instead of throwing it out.
It works like this: in the water, there are big drums filled with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Next door—adjacent to the fish tanks in the farm's roughly 8,000 square foot indoor growing area—is a greenhouse space. Nine tubes, one from each of the fish tanks, feed nine hydroponic systems, with the water full of nitrates constantly filtering out from the fish tanks and into plastic tubes beneath the rows of salad greens.
Eventually, what solid waste the greens can't take up is filtered out along with old water, and new water is filtered in. It's a fairly ingenious system, although Ed says he can't take any credit. People think the idea may go as far back as the ancient Incas, the Chinese, and even the Aztecs. If you think about it, it's actually a very natural system—the whole world runs on aquaponics in one way or another. But the modern system was the brainchild of the New Alchemy Institute—the place that inspired Arthur Teubner to include growing space in his living space. The researchers at New Alchemy published a series of articles on irrigating garden vegetables with fish effluent in the 1970s, and the idea took off.
Ed says he's been interested in controlled environment growing for at least as long. His wife tells him he was talking about it when they were dating; they've been married now 37 years.
Of course, the upshot of all this is food. Ed sells tilapia to local chefs (he's hoping to start selling retail to fish markets soon, too) and his greens go to local stores, restaurants, and farmers' markets. They're sold under the banner of E & T Farms, which Ed runs with his wife, Betty. They also produce honey and beeswax candles, and in the summer, they expand their growing outside and offer goodies like tomatoes and cucumbers. But even now, all year round, they have salad mix—plump plastic bags filled with baby lettuces, Swiss chard, arugula, and even a few nasturtiums.
This Saturday, at the Marstons Mills Farmers' Market, if you have a second, introduce yourself. Ed may be shy, but he's always willing to talk aquaponics.