Dave Szish and Scott Wolfson’s story starts in fire and ends in water, with stops in Margaretville and Olive as it saunters towards the Woodstock Farm Festival’s Wednesdays opening May 31.
It’s all about a new form of farming, or the creation of an efficient new “food production system” as Szish puts it, called Freshies Aquaponics. Which, in keeping with the wild contours of contemporary entrepreneurship, got its name from the founding friends’ love for snowboarding and one of that generational sport’s most beloved terms.
“I had gotten a BFA in glass blowing and was working in a studio in Reading, PA when I reached a point where I started to reassess what I was doing,” Szish explained about the origins of Freshies, which grows fresh salad and other greens via a water-based methodology that utilizes fish-raising as a nutrient base. “I came to New York following a girlfriend after realizing I was using way too many BTUs in my work. I started thinking about agriculture, started looking into water-based systems that didn’t require lots of land, then went down a rabbit hole Google search exploring the ecology of what was available.”
That led to a class in aquaponics four years ago, then a slow progression through trying things out first as a hobby, then a “family enterprise,” and finally the fledgling business’ current stage where Freshies is readying to find a means of reaching a profitable economy of scale.
Wolfson, Szish adds, was a fellow glassblower he’d been friends with for years, who was on a similar quest to find a new path for his life. The two talked about how an aquaponics farming system could be mobile, and hence more scalable than most agricultural pursuits. They got their start in Margaretville, after which a friend offered them a property in West Shokan with enough flat land for them to put up the two used greenhouses they’d bought and ramp up their food production a year ago.
“The town said it was okay for us to farm there,” Szish added. “It was less remote than Margaretville and fit into our plans to move what we were doing towards the Hudson Valley. We’ve had a chance to learn what we’re doing in steps before we get up to enough product to go to scale.”
How does Freshies work and what exactly is it producing, food-wise?
There’s fish in a barn. Szish and Wolfson buy young fry from a hatchery and heat their habitat with a water heater, and keep generators on hand to ensure nothing stops regarding necessary oxygenation and warmth.
“Think of a large aquarium that we then move water from,” Szish explains of the process they started with Catfish and are now raising Tilapia in. He explains how fish waste holds nitrates as well as ammonia, as well as how a natural slime coat on fish helps transfer that waste into naturally benign and even beneficial forms. That’s the tea color, the tannins, one sees in one’s fish tank, or streams.
“Instead of changing the water out, like in a fish tank, we use several layers of filtration to reuse it then recycle it back to the fish,” he added.
The fish water makes its way to a greenhouse where seedlings sit in cocoa core plugs on floating Styrofoam beds.
“We ensure the plants get the nutrients they want,” Szish noted. “That cleans the water for the fish to reuse.”
The greenhouses are heated by wood. The plants stretch their roots into the enriched water. The results are eight to ten different lettuces and 15 varieties of greens, including bok choy, kale, watercress, sorrel, and chard, with basil, tomatoes and cucumbers to get started in the coming weeks. All is vibrantly green and lasts much longer in a refrigerator than normal greens. Current customers include Sissy’s in Uptown Kingston, the Corner Bistro food truck outside of Rhinebeck, Woodstock Meats, and formerly Fleischers.
“When we asked about the Rondout Valley Organic Buyers Club, they sent someone to check out what we were growing,” Szish explained. “They tried some lettuce and there was this ‘aha’ moment as their faces lit up.”
To date, the two men have been doing all the work at Freshies, although Szish added that “every day we finish later and later I realize it will be nice to reach that point where we can hire help.” Balancing the hard work, though, they’ve been able to explore what they and their aquaponics idea is capable of without having to rely on an abstract business plan, they’ve discovered and overcome most of the pitfalls that could befall them, and they’ve found themselves naturally prepared for future growth when they can handle it.
Think electricity in Olive during the past winter; Freshies’ generators meant nothing stopped. Ever.
“The plants don’t care,” Szish noted. “But the fish are fragile.”
He talked about the efficiencies and sustainability of what Freshies is doing: The fact that they can grow one acre’s worth of vegetables in one tenth the space, using well under ten percent of the resources a land-based farm needs. Taste gets reintroduced to food. It’s all about high quality product and responsible cleanliness.
Eventually, Szish added, Freshies would probably start raising its own fish fry. At present, the pond-dwellers they work with (koi fish included in that lot) get sold whole, and live, when completed. To do otherwise would involve new permits and a commercial kitchen, if filets were to be contemplated.
The two water farmers said they’d looked into getting their product labeled organic only to find that such labeling is more political than they’d anticipated, with land-based farmers having so far blocked any water-based systems from getting near the ‘organic’ moniker. Yet they were included as part of a federal USDA study that included discussion of organics, nurtients, proteins and other cutting edge agricultural concepts.
“I grew up in South Florida with a canal in the back yard where fishing was a part of life,” Szish added. “My grandparents lived on what had been their parents farm and as I grew up, I always kept a garden. When I was in college at Temple University in Philadelphia, I was supervisor of their neighborhood garden. The green thumb has always been there.”
He and Wolfson were proud that they’d moved beyond the seasonal limitations of traditional farming and were pioneering something new…”putting flavor back in lettuce,” as Szish put it.
As for those beginnings in the fires needed for glass blowing, both men said it was something they might yet get back to. But on their own terms now, without being tied to anyone else’s studios, and ideas of what might be salable.
For more on all things Freshies Aquaponics, including an upcoming lettuce of the month club they’ll be starting in the coming weeks and new spots where their wholesale products will be available retail, look them up on Facebook.