Charles Hudson and Sally Eason huddle over a tray of microgreens, meticulously snipping shoots of red-veined sorrel and amaranth with tiny stainless steel scissors. Wearing crisp white coats and disposable gloves, they could be in the lab at some research institution. Instead, they’re in the aquaponics greenhouse at Sunburst Chef & Farmer in Leicester, surrounded by leafy greens, 60 tilapia and 10,000 gallons of water.
Aquaponics uses fish waste to fertilize plants. The plants absorb the nutrients, producing clean water for the fish to swim in. It’s a closed loop system, except for the water the plants absorb as they grow and what’s lost to evaporation. This sustainable reuse of resources was part of the appeal for the business partners.
On June 25 and 26, Sunburst Chef & Farmer will be one of 20 local farms welcoming the public to tour their operations and take home ultra-fresh food during ASAP’s annual farm tour (see sidebar).
Microgreens, major flavor
Hudson, the new business’s founder and president, has 25 years’ experience in the industry, with a focus on value-added foods. He has deep connections with local chefs and restaurateurs. Eason, who’s vice president of Sunburst Chef & Farmer, is the former CEO of Sunburst Trout Farms (an entirely separate enterprise). She brings decades of knowledge from her family’s long-running trout farm.
Together, the pair have created a business with the region’s culinary community in mind.
As the name suggests, chefs are the primary customers. They’re also the reason you’ll see microgreens paired with an aquaponics operation, even though Chef & Farmer’s microgreens are grown in soil.
Microgreens are immature herbs and greens, such as cilantro, dill and red Russian kale. Grown to a height of 1 to 3 inches, they can be harvested in as little as eight days, making them particularly attractive to chefs who want farm-fresh ingredients.
Microgreens don’t lend themselves to aquaponic production, however; they began as a side item but quickly became one of the farm’s most popular offerings. Chef & Farmer also grows basil, kale and lettuce aquaponically.
“The chefs that have come here, without exception, have started buying product from us,” says Eason. “They all bend down and grab a piece of whatever they’re looking at and taste it, and they just go, ‘Wow.’”
Twelve restaurants in the region — including Cúrate, Nightbell, Rhubarb, Canyon Kitchen and the Old Edwards Inn — are buying the farm’s microgreens, attracted by their intense flavor and attractiveness as garnishes, Chief Operating Officer August Forbes reports.
Chefs often come to Sunburst with specific requests, and the farm’s custom microgreen mixes enable them to home in on the flavor and appearance they seek.
“I love working with chefs,” says Eason. “They’re real picky, but so am I.”
Chefs, however, “aren’t the only folks we service,” notes Hudson. “We’re excited to show a lot more of the public what we’re doing and what we have available.”
Science meets agriculture
In the back of the greenhouse, tendrils of Tropicana lettuce roots stretch down into the “float beds.” The farm’s full-sized collards, kale and basil are also grown in water.
But the highly scientific process requires careful adjustments of temperature and nutrient levels for both fish and plants, and the proprietors spent months doing research and learning hands-on techniques from Brad Todd at Lucky Clays Fresh in Norwood, N.C.
“It’s been a heck of a learning curve for us,” says Eason. “We both have strong science backgrounds, but even so, there’s a lot of chemistry buried deep, deep, deep in these brain cells that we had to resurrect.”
Sunburst Chef & Farmer got its start in 2014 in an 800-square-foot storefront in Waynesville before moving to the Smith Mill Works in West Asheville last year. The business started with a 10-gallon tank and six guppies but has expanded rapidly, with plans to increase to 150 tilapia by the end of this month.
Trout require cold temperatures and moving water, neither of which is compatible with aquaponics. They chose tilapia instead, a hearty fish that’s proved to be a good match with the farm’s aquaponic produce. Chef & Farmer doesn’t currently sell its “working fish,” as Forbes calls them, but the business hopes to offer them to local restaurants in the future.
Unlike some aquaponics programs, the fish at Sunburst Chef & Farmer aren’t visible: They’re enclosed in a fiberglass tank. “By doing that, we’re better able to control the temperature of the fish, the water quality and many other things,” greenhouse manager Bennett Tompkins explains.
The farm’s water comes from a spring-fed pond and a backup well on the property; the system uses no public water.
“The whole use and reuse of the water and nutrients is probably what excites me the most about what we’re doing,” says Hudson. In addition, he notes, aquaponics doesn’t require a large amount of arable land, which is in short supply here in the mountains. “You can do it in your basement; you can do it in a greenhouse; you can do it in your office.”
For Hudson, that’s also part of the appeal: “Whether it’s dirt farming or water farming, it’s exciting to me to see more people growing food by any means.”
During the farm tour, visitors will be able to view the aquaponics operation up close and buy microgreens and aquaponically grown produce. Larger groups may even be able to feed the fish, depending on the schedule.
It will be “all hands on deck” that weekend, says Forbes, who hopes the tour will help visitors “realize this is quite an operation — and it’s happening in their own backyard.”