HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — When Ken Armstrong was 42, he inherited some money. He had spent years observing his brother’s entrepreneurial spirit while working with him in pet shampoo manufacturing, but he wanted to do something else.
A YouTube video on aquaponics caught his attention, and he decided to explore this method of growing produce in a symbiotic environment.
Aquaponics combines traditional aquaculture with hydroponics. Worms and microbes convert fish waste into nutrients for the produce that’s grown in water. The plants filter the water that is then recycled back to the fish tanks.
“We live on a planet with finite resources, and recognizing what goes into our food and the quality of food, it sparked my interest,” Armstrong said. “I wanted to put my money where my ethics are and create a business model that people could replicate, and understand where our food comes from.”
It was a huge leap of faith for someone who had never grown even a plant before, and had not run his own business.
“I had never heard about it before, but once I learned about it, I wondered why everyone was not doing it,” he said. “I saw an opportunity to get in the ground floor with a system that could make a paradigm shift in how food is grown sustainably.”
Armstrong spent a year researching the field, then went with some friends to a four-day training session in Florida, which gave him a solid grounding in all things aquaponics, and how to start and run an operation.
He named his operation Ouroboros — it’s the symbol of the snake eating its tail found in many ancient cultures — because he liked the symbolism about infinity and the idea of how energy from one life form can transfer to another, which is the reasoning behind aquaponics.
Ouroboros Farms is in Half Moon Bay, in San Mateo County in Northern California, a mile from the Pacific Ocean and about 20 miles south of San Francisco.
He has two 30,000-gallon tanks and three greenhouses with 15,000 square feet of total growing space. In the tanks he grows koi fish and rainbow trout.
One greenhouse is devoted to germination of plants, and the other two house lettuce, which comprises 80% of his produce sales, and kale, collard greens, chard, sesame, basil, thyme, dandelion greens and tomatoes.
In 2018, he grew about 150,000 heads of lettuce using 90,000 gallons of water. He estimates aquaponics reduces water use by about 95% for his operations, as compared to traditional farming in soil.
The produce is sold to regional restaurants, which range from brew pubs to Michelin-starred high-end eateries. The trout is also sold to restaurants while the koi are sold as ornamentals. He has an onsite store that brings in more sales.
A manager handles the daily operations and is so vested in it that Armstrong gave him a share of the business. Armstrong heads the teaching of aquaponics. People from across the U.S., the Middle East, Europe and Asian countries such as the Philippines have learned the trade. Classes range from those aimed at beginners to a three-day commercial session for those who want to go into business.
“Whenever I teach classes, I emphasize that this is a business,” he said. “You can grow food with aquaponics, but you can’t make a living unless you can sell it.”
Armstrong has big dreams and nurtures a long-term vision for sustainability. He is developing a futuristic greenhouse design that will run on solar power with a three-day battery backup, have a rainwater catchment system, technology to capture the humidity inside and special lighting for the plants.