It is hard to grow anything without soil – after all, healthy soil forms the basis for growing our gardens green and plentiful all summer long.
But Swanky Roots, an ag business in south central Montana, is proving that soil can also be water, allowing the mother/daughter owners to grow leafy greens in water all year long in their huge greenhouse.
“We grow our greens using aquaponics, which is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. While hydroponics and aquaponics are similar, aquaponics has fish,” said Veronnaka Evenson, who owns Swanky Roots with her mother, Ronna Klamert.
Evenson said the way they grow greens is very efficient and sustainable.
“We are able to grow more efficiently, sustainably, and are able to produce a healthy, clean product all year long,” she said. “The plants are happy, getting all the water, lights and nutrients they need.”
In hydroponics, garden businesses add the nutrients right into the water.
“For aquaponics, we have to achieve mature water by getting the fish in and feeding them, finding the proper balance of enough fish and microbes in the system,” she said.
When the mother/daughter duo started the business in 2016, they spent an entire year just “building up the water to feed the plants.”
Finally, in November of 2017, the business was established and ready for fish.
Evenson explained how the aquaponics cycle works with fish and plants.
“Healthy fish generate waste, and microbes convert the waste to fertilizer for the plants. Plants filter the water and the clean water returns to the fish,” she said.
Growing greens this way allows Swanky Roots to grow greens with less water than in a typical garden or vegetable farm.
“We can grow lettuce with six times less water than what we would use growing it in the traditional way,” she said.
Every so often, there is a fish harvest. When that happens, the fish, such as Blue Gill, sell out very fast at the store.
The greenhouse never wastes any water – in fact, the water is in a closed loop system.
“We have a closed loop, reusable water system and there is not any soil,” she said.
Klamert, a farmer/rancher all her life, actually came up with the idea for their aquaponics business.
“My mom grew up on a large, organic vegetable farm and cattle operation outside of Lockwood (Mont.),” Evenson said.
Klamert, and her husband, Gene, raise Angus cattle near Billings, which led Evenson to grow up with a love for agriculture and ag education.
After high school, Evenson went to Montana State University, graduating in 2016 with a degree in ag education and plant science and a minor in biology teaching.
She wasn’t sure where she would settle down and work after college. But her mom suggested starting a greenhouse, and growing lettuce and other greens with aquaponics.
“I had never heard of it before. But I loved the concept,” she said.
To be sure that Billings and the south central Montana area would buy their products, they had a market analysis conducted ahead of time.
“The community was excited about fresh greens. People here love having lettuce and other greens all winter long,” she added.
In the beginning of their business, both Evenson and Klamert went to Wisconsin to learn how to run an aquaponics greenhouse.
“We are committed to producing our product through sustainable methods,” Evenson said. “With the world population growing and the amount of productive land decreasing, our aquaponics system has the ability to produce multiple products within one greenhouse. And we can produce greens and fish year-round.”
The greenhouse is constructed on 60 acres of land.
“Someday I would like to turn this into an ag education farm for the community,” she said.
At the Swanky Roots greenhouse, the greens grown include: lettuce, butter lettuce, oakleaf lettuce, microgreens, edible flowers, herbs, kale, and Swiss chard. But they are growing different products all the time.
They not only sell at their storefront, but they also sell greens to local restaurants and to some local grocery stores. They are also part of the Yellowstone Valley Food Hub, an ag co-op composed of Yellowstone Valley farmers and ranchers. At the food hub, lots of products including meat, dairy and pizza, are produced for the communities it serves.