Hoping to sprout success: Cutting-edge 302 Aquaponics takes shape in Dover

302 Aquaponics owner/CEO Doug Wood inspects his lettuce. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — It looks like some kind of a crazy laboratory straight out of the future. It turns out that Dover’s Doug Wood is the mad scientist behind all those large blue barrels bubbling with water and fish that are the key ingredients to growing four types of organic produce.

Inside the warm environment of a greenhouse that sits just off Del. 1 and the Simms Woods Road overpass in north Dover, Mr. Wood is in the process of starting up his 302 Aquaponics business, which will eventually harvest four types of organic lettuces, tilapia (fish) and local honey from beehives.

While Mr. Wood also has a traditional farm that sits just down the road, it is his new business that focuses on producing greens in water that has him excited. With more than 15,000 square feet of available space inside his greenhouse, which will make his business the largest commercial Aquaponics greenhouse in Delaware, things are really starting to take off.

“I bought a greenhouse from a guy who used to sell flowers in Smyrna. He just got out of it. It was a hoop building,” Mr. Wood said. “I put it out on my farm up the street and was doing hydroponics — working with tubing and building all kinds of stuff myself, drilling holes in four-inch pipe, and I did it that way and introduced fertilizer in a liquid form. That’s straight up hydroponics.

“Then I was messing around and said, ‘I want some fish,’ because I didn’t want to use synthetic fertilizer or man-made products, so I got interested in the fish (tilapia) being the fertilizer and it was a hobby that kind of turned into, ‘Let’s try this as a commercial venture.’ It was a hobby that will hopefully become a big commercial business.”

Mr. Wood, a Milford native, is a lifelong resident of Kent County, and he wants the fruits — well, vegetables — of his labor to benefit businesses and individuals in the First State.

Shifting into high gear

He is hoping to eventually sell his premium lettuces to restaurants and schools in Delaware.

Right now, he is still going through the process of getting everything up to speed. In about 30 days he should have about 500 plants ready to harvest.

“I’m trying to get it all together,” said Mr. Wood, who was previously a special education teacher. “I say I’m in the drywall phase of building a house — the kitchen’s done, but the countertops aren’t in and all that. I figure we’ll end up having close to three to eight employees. I’ve talked to our high schools to get some interns in from the FFA (Future Farmers of America), or they have the program Pathways to Careers, so I’m looking into maybe getting some high school kids to come in here and do some work.

302 Aquaponics owner/CEO Doug Wood feeds tilapia fish.

“We’ve had quite a few people stop by. There was one guy who was driving down from Philly who saw my website and was really interested and really wanted to see it and wanted to stop in. There’s been a lot of interest, I can say that.”

It really is a remarkable process in which he combines the fish with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. The fish, as it turns out, are the key to it all.

“We have fish and that’s what generates the system,” Mr. Wood said. “It’s our liquid fertilizer. I have them in four different barrels. There are four different stages of fish, those are about 16-inch out in the front and then 12-(inch), four-(inch). We get them as baby minnows, and they come in at about a gram and we’ll keep them for nine months (until they get up to around four-and-a-half pounds) before we harvest them.

“We filter out the solids. There’s a process. It goes through a filtration system and then it goes into a gasification and then it goes out into the vents. The fish waste is your liquid fertilizer and then down the road you sell the fish. They’re dual purpose.”

The greens that the fish help to grow are Romaine, Summer Crisp and a Waldmann’s lettuce, as well as a Spring Mix, which has a different variety of lettuces in it for a spring salad.

“Right now, we plan to harvest about 400 to 500 heads of lettuce a day,” said Mr. Wood. “There’s four products here, so about 100 of these a day once this system gets up and going, and then when we have both systems that will be times two, so we should be harvesting around 800 to 900 heads of lettuce a day.”

‘It just makes sense’

Mr. Wood said taking advantage of aquaponics just makes plain old good business sense.

He doesn’t use any chemicals or pesticides and there is no soil involved with the growing process at 302 Aquaponics.

“Right now, I’d say around 90 percent of our produce and lettuces are coming in from California and Arizona and that’s five days at a bare minimum just to get it from there to here, so I just thought it would be a more local, cleaner product,” Mr. Wood said. “I plan to direct sell it, so I bought my own refrigerator truck and my goal is to sell directly to the restaurants and schools.

Tilapia fish in a tank are eager to be feed at 302 Aquaponics.

“It’s completely a year-round operation here (in the greenhouse) and that’s also a difference, where planting outside you’re only limited to a couple of months out of the year.”

He is trying to develop a broader plan for the tilapia, which are originally from Africa and the Nile River, when it comes time to harvest the fish out of the system.

“I do worry about my fish, because when I do start harvesting fish, which I’m harvesting in the 500-number range, I would love to sell to restaurants, but I can’t process the fish. I can’t filet them,” he said. “So I might have to go to a warehouse and somebody that might ship them to Philly or New York because of that large number of fish.”

As for the honey, he already harvested his first batch last summer.

“This summer the highest I had was 60 hives,” said Mr. Wood. “This is my first year commercially doing bees. I’ve always had bees on my farm up the street. This year we got about 300 pounds of honey and sold most all of it through Facebook. Local honey helps with allergies and it has an anti-bacterial use. There’s all kinds of uses for honey.”

Right now, Mr. Woods’ main helpers at 302 Aquaponics have been his wife, Katie, and his father-in-law, Rick Norton.

Mr. Norton said his son-in-law doesn’t like to talk a lot about some of the kinds of things that he does, but he admires him for them.

“I think it’s fantastic, especially the way he intends to employ people,” Mr. Norton said. “He was previously a special-ed teacher and he’s found a way to roll that back into having the students come out here for field trips or for helping out if they are interested.”

Mr. Norton said he is always amazed when he walks into the greenhouse.

“I built airplanes for 30-plus years, so this is very interesting to me how this happens, why it happens and all of that,” he said. “It really is amazing.”

Mr. Wood said it is all coming together — one barrel and a school of fish at a time.

“I figure if I can’t find business between Rehoboth and Wilmington, then I shouldn’t be selling produce,” he said. “It’s going to be premium, organic products with no pesticides and no chemicals. I’m a lifelong resident of Kent County and I don’t plan to leave our county. This place has always been good to me — and it’s home.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.