For the moment, Up Cycle Aquaponics is nearly all white. But that changes by the day, with shoots of green sprouting here and there, hinting at the leafy oasis Shari Rightmer hopes is still to come. Orange and black koi fish also add color, breaking up the stark white monochrome that imparts the vague impression of a laboratory.
Up Cycle is an aquaponics farm, a concept of growing produce that depends on a symbiotic relationship between plants, fish and the elements. A large part of Rightmer's vision for the Taft start-up is about opening it up to the public. She knows plenty of people won't get aquaponics until they can see it for themselves.
Now they can.
"Most people really have to scratch and sniff to really understand it," Rightmer said. "That's (one) reason it was so important to have a showroom."
Walking through the small solarium that has been built onto her home, Rightmer explained aquaponics in part by pointing out her all-white outfit: Since her plants don't grow in dirt, Rightmer can tend the crops without worrying about getting her clothes dirty. Growing food without dirt might be a hard thing for people to wrap their brains around, but that's where the other key part of aquaponics comes in: fish.
"I'm just going to say it: Everything grows in poop," said Rightmer, who will turn 60 in a few days. "You've just got to pick the poop your food is grown in."
Unlike the fertilizer that comes from warm-blooded animals, what comes from a cold-blooded animal like a fish is less likely to have bacteria like salmonella or e. coli, and the food lasts longer, Rightmer said.
As the fish help the plants grow, the plants help the fish by acting as a filter. In the columns, each plant grows in a small pot with organic clay, getting water from the pond via a tube that goes to the top of each column and trickles down to each plant before the last drops reach the lava rocks at the bottom, becoming a biofilter for the fish.
Though the hard work of building Up Cycle is over, now it's time to be patient. Rightmer had to wait for the added nutrients in the pond's water to balance to make it perfect for the koi fish that will live there. Then it will be time to wait for the leafy greens to grow.
"Once we have the koi fish, this will be popping," Rightmer said from inside the solarium last month.
Rightmer first heard of aquaponics about four years ago and opened her doors to the public in late February after about a year of planning. She was hooked from the start because aquaponics combines her three loves: food, gardening and cutting-edge technology.
"When I came across aquaponics doing research four years ago, I said 'This is it. I don't know how but I'm going to do this,'" she remembered. "I knew it was meant to be an offering to everyone, not just me."
Rightmer's "offering" is a chance for the community to see a new way of growing food and the opportunity to eat and cook with what she believes is some of the best produce around. Since the fish are less likely to introduce bad bacteria and the temperature-controlled room where the veggies grow is air-filtered, the result is super-pure produce, she said.
Growing in the showroom are baby springs, microgreens and lettuce, all of which will grow in less than a month once the water is ready. In a shed behind the house is another aquaponic set-up where Rightmer is growing tomatoes, though that area is not open to the public. She didn't yet know specific prices for the greens and tomatoes but said they will be around farmers market prices. Anyone can walk into Up Cycle to buy produce, whether it's a single head of lettuce for a family dinner or several for a chef to use at a restaurant.
Aquaponics uses 10 percent of the water typically used for similar plants grown in soil, and aquaponic produce grows two to three times faster than in soil and three times larger in less space than in soil, Rightmer said, citing a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Each column in the three rows of aquaponic tubes holds more than 20 individual plants. There are nearly 2,000 plants at Up Cycle.
"It's easier to ask 'What's the downside?'" Rightmer said. "It's zero."
Just about anything can grow in aquaponics, other than plants like blueberries, whose acids or oils are harmful to the fish. Though many have wondered, possibly with a raised eyebrow, if Rightmer was growing marijuana, she said she couldn't grow it with aquaponics even if she wanted to because of the oil in THC. They might be confusing aquaponics for hydroponics, a similar soil-free farming technique that, yes, some people use to grow marijuana. Unlike aquaponics, hydroponics doesn't involve fish.
"The concept is simple but it has such a beautiful balance," she said. "If anything is off, it throws the whole thing off."
There are five aquaponic farms from Kern County to San Diego, she said, but the showroom aspect of her business is a first in the country, as far as she knows. Usually aquaponic farms are not open to the public.
At Up Cycle, produce is sold on a first-come, first-served basis. If there ever is unsold produce, Rightmer will dehydrate and sell them for soup mixes or spices or freeze-dry them.
Not the only fish in the pond
For insight and advice into aquaponics, Rightmer didn't have to look far. Essential to her starting Up Cycle were Kimberly Jackson and her wife, Shanta, who have been running their own aquaponic business, EcoCentric Farms, since 2011. Since Aquaponics is still so new, the Jacksons learned primarily through trial and error, reaching out online to other DIY aquaponic farmers for tips. Now the couple have become local experts on all things aquaponics. They built the columns and structures where Rightmer will grow her produce, and they're happy to help anyone who might want their own aquaponic set-up, be it for a new business or a backyard.
The Jacksons have found from experience that all the praise Rightmer gives aquaponics is true: the kale, arugula, chard and spinach EcoCentric produces is long-lasting, fast-growing and, based on how well it all sells at farmers markets, great-tasting.
"A lot of our customers say the produce just lasts so much longer because it’s picked the day before market," Kim Jackson said.
In the last year, the Jacksons have even been able to make EcoCentric Farms their full-time job. They sell their produce at local farmers markets on the weekends and their kale chips are available at Sully's convenience stores. It was Kim Jackson's mother, Deborah Jackson, who funded most of the start-up expenses, though Jackson declined to share how much. Today, anyone can support the farm with a loan through kiva.org.
"For some reason, we knew it would work," said Jackson, 31. "We kept seeing signs of improvement that encouraged us to keep going with it."
Aquaponics, in vertical structures like Up Cycle and EcoCentric or horizontal form like the system in place at Epcot in Orlando, is "extremely scalable," Jackson said. Because of its adjustability in size and scale, anyone can start an aquaponic farm with a little help and insight from those in the know. The science involved is complex to explain but simple in practice — essentially, aquaponic farmers need to get the water just right for the fish and plants. That can take time, so patience is important.
"Definitely (don't) rush it," Jackson said. "Establishing a really healthy nitrate cycle is the basis of the whole thing. You see the fish and see the plants and think that’s most important, but the beneficial bacteria is doing all the heavy lifting."
Sharing the vision
Because aquaponics requires a bit of explaining, the hardest part of starting Up Cycle might have been convincing the city of Taft and other entities to get on board. It was hard to get a loan at first, Rightmer said, but eventually everything came together, with the help of the Small Business Development Center, the United States Department of Agriculture, architects, designers and, of course, EcoCentric Farms.
"Each entity that came in truly got the vision," Rightmer said. "The city of Taft approved and that was huge, for them to trust me."
For the new front of the house and the aquaponic equipment, Up Cycle took an investment of about $150,000 to $175,000, Rightmer said.
Though she's only just put the finishing touches on Up Cycle, Rightmer is already thinking to the future. She doesn't know how or what exactly, but she'd like to expand the business to be able to grow more produce. She's also open to franchising, she said. But at the moment, it's a one-woman operation.
At the grand opening on Feb. 25, Rightmer got to show off the completion of her vision and serve guests some food grown through aquaponics, though not from Up Cycle. She said many of the guests were more excited about the food than the building, which is still a win for aquaponics.
Before its official opening, the people of Taft took notice of the construction going on at 610 Kern St., whether they knew what it was or not. Now the curious can come inside and see for themselves.
"People stop and drive by; they look in the windows, like 'What in the world?'" Rightmer said. "Once the green shows up, they'll be blown away."
While working on Up Cycle, Rightmer will continue her nonprofit Shar-On Corporation, which helps people transitioning through life changes by offering classes and free meals. Rightmer herself was homeless for about two years following her husband's 2007 death. She spent around four months at the Bakersfield Homeless Center. Now back on her feet and already giving back through her nonprofit, Rightmer is eager to share her business with the community.
What she's giving to the community this time is an opportunity to learn and the chance to buy some great fresh produce. It won't be like shopping in a grocery story. Rightmer remembered a time she was once at a chain grocery store and picked up a head of lettuce.
"I asked myself, 'What do I really know about this lettuce I'm about to put in my body?'" she said. "Here, we have trust through transparency. It's all right here."