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Testing the waters

Brian Tanguay’s ‘floating farm’ is poised for growth

Brian Tanguay is finding that the same painstaking attention that brought him success as an engineer and manufacturing manager pays off when it comes to growing greens, herbs and other produce.

[cleeng_content id=”497146852″ description=”Read it now!” price=”0.49″ t=”article”]“It’s such satisfying work,” said Tanguay, who holds a degree from the University of Massachusetts and settled in the Panhandle a year ago. “I’m getting to use every bit of my skill set from what I used to do. I love that every step of the way, I’m figuring out how to do things even more efficiently.”

Tanguay operates Tangy Produce from the Shepherdstown home he shares with his girlfriend, Colleen Curran. Despite the Arctic chill that has upended school schedules and other facets of normal life this month, he remains on track for spring and the start of the season at Charles Town Farmers Market and Shepherdstown’s Morgan Grove Market.

“That’s another great thing about aquaponics – your growing season isn’t limited to when the weather cooperates,” he said. “You’re able to grow year-round.”

Tanguay took up gardening as a hobby just four years ago when he was working as a quality manager at Ecolab in Greensboro, N.C. Concerned with food safety and wanting to eat healthier and become more self-reliant, he put in raised beds in his yard and planted corn, tomatoes, lettuce and other favorite foods.

As an organic grower with an eye toward making his operation as streamlined as possible, Tanguay quickly found he was growing much more than he could consume. He began sharing the abundance with friends and co-workers, and even then still had an overflow.

“I became obsessed,” he said. “I’d put in my 10 to 12 hours at work, but instead of being tired, I couldn’t wait to get out in the garden. It was work, but I felt such tranquility being there. I loved figuring out how to do things better and better.

“It was literally all I could think about.”

The following summer, he created a Community Supported Agriculture organization so that he could formally offer friends and others a share in his garden (to cover the cost of seeds and other expenses) in exchange for weekly batches of produce.

“The feedback I got was overwhelming,” he said. “People who’d taken part in CSAs that had been operating for years and years said they got more produce from my garden. And they told me this was the best produce they’d ever had. That’s what got me thinking about trying to make this my business.”

From there, Tanguay began researching growing plants in water so that he could farm year-round in any climate and make the most of every square inch of available growing space. Fans of this style of growing say that a system that delivers nutrients directly to the roots proves more efficient than the traditional approach of putting seeds into soil.

“This way, the nutrition goes right to the roots instead of the plants having to work to find the nutrients in the soil,” Tanguay said.

He discovered a model in Friendly Aquaponics, a Hawaiian company that’s among the leaders of the cutting-edge field of aquaponics, the marriage of hydroponics (growing in water rather than soil) and aquaculture (raising fish). He attended a stateside workshop and then spent time at Friendly Aquaponics in Hawaii.

Melding the worlds of plants and fish this way lets Tanguay create a sustainable cycle that’s a win from an environmental standpoint as well as good business. Aquaponics uses just 10 percent of the water that’s needed in traditional farming.

He also doesn’t have to spend money on fertilizers, but rather uses nitrate-rich waste from tilapia to help his plants grow. The plants, in turn, filter the water for the fish.

“In hydroponics, salts from chemical fertilizers build up and have to be flushed out so you’re flushing the system or changing out the water,” he said. “We don’t do that. The waste from our fish becomes a biological fertilizer – and the plants getting fertilized filter the water for the fish.”

Tanguay’s growing methods also allow him to skip pesticides and other chemicals. Customers tell him they appreciate the chance to buy such clean local food, he said. There’s an additional payoff, too, Tanguay said. “What we hear again and again is that our food has a wonderful intensity – just a really good taste,” he said.

And food raised through aquaponics doesn’t carry a risk of exposure to the likes of e. coli and salmonella, Tanguay said. Because tilapia are cold-blooded, such nasty bacteria can’t survive inside the fish and are thus can’t be transmitted to the plants through their waste.

He recently built a mini-aquaponics system at Black Dog Coffee in Bardane where customers can buy an ever-changing array of herbs, greens and other produce.

Besides that setup and the sales he makes from his home, Tanguay plans to man farm markets each week at Morgan’s Grove and in Charles Town and also focus on growing his operations so that he can become the main produce provider for area restaurants.

He even envisions someday working with a local restaurant to offer a kind of living salad bar – where hungry customers could select what they’d like on their plate from a variety of greens growing right in the dining room. “Now you’re not looking at produce that’s just fresh,” he said. “This would be salad that would be growing right until it arrives at your table.”

Tanguay has a number of other ideas he’s excited about and says that depending on which takes root first, Tangy Produce could evolve in several different ways in the years ahead. Though that means his business’s future isn’t set it stone, that’s OK with him.

He says he’ll just continue to keep growing great produce – and talking about what he’s up to and showing off his growing rooms to interested members of the community.

“I’m putting all my experience and energy into this,” he said. “I love when I can share what I’m doing with other people and get them excited about the possibilities, too.”

 

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