A new beginning for Refresh Farms
by Margaret McCormick - Wednesday, February 26th, 2014
For those who aren't familiar with it, aquaponics is a sustainable system of food production.

Refresh (verb): give new strength or energy to; reinvigorate

If you’re a regular at the Central New York Regional Market in Syracuse on Saturdays, you might have wondered: Where is the young woman who sells butterhead lettuce and whole tilapia?

Late last fall, Jamie O’Hern, 27, took a pause to refresh her aquaponic produce business, Refresh Farms.

O’Hern founded Refresh in 2011 and operated it out of a small building in East Syracuse for a couple years. Last fall, she partnered with John Freightenburgh, owner of Ironwood in Manlius, to build a new aquaponic farm in a greenhouse at 604 E. Seneca St., up the street from the wood-fired pizza restaurant. O’Hern also works as a server at the restaurant. They got the new site up and running in November, but decided to suspend growing because of the unusually cold weather and the impracticality and high cost of heating the building in the winter. O’Hern has planted seeds and says the growing system should be back up and running in a few weeks.

“My first priority will be to grow lettuces and herbs for Ironwood,” O’Hern says, “and then we’ll expand distribution from there.”

For those who aren’t familiar with it, aquaponics is a sustainable system of food production. It combines aquaculture (raising fish in tanks) with hydroponics (growing plants in water) in an interactive indoor environment. The wastewater from the fish tanks is used to fertilize the plants and the plants, in turn, keep the water clean. The purified water is then circulated back to the fish. Grow beds are stacked in tiered systems, resembling bunk beds, to maximize space and growing capacity.

The advantages of aquaponics growing are many, O’Hern says. It uses considerably less energy and less water than traditional agriculture allows people to grow food in cities and other places where climate and conditions aren’t favorable. The produce and fish are fresh, flavorful and pesticide, herbicide and hormone free. Even if it’s cold and snowing, you can enjoy a fresh, local salad.

Photo, Refresh Farms website

Photo, Refresh Farms website

That hasn’t been the case this winter but come spring, O’Hern will resume production of butterhead lettuce, micro-greens, red and green romaine lettuce, bok choy and herbs, including sorrel and several varieties of basil. Until she gets back to the Regional Market, she notes that Main Street Farms, of Homer and Cortland, is there most Saturdays with greens and tilapia.

Aquaponic produce is usually sold with the roots and rootball attached — which surprises customers at first. With the roots on, O’Hern says, aquaponic lettuce can last up to two weeks in the refrigerator. Tilapia is sold when it reaches maturity, and usually ranges in size from 1.5 to 3 pounds.

O’Hern got her introduction to aquaponics at Sunset Hydroponics and Home Brewing on Erie Boulevard East, in DeWitt, where she worked as a manager. She grew tomatoes, basil and lettuce in the basement of her family’s house in Syracuse before moving to the small space in East Syracuse.

In Manlius, Refresh will offer koi for stocking landscaping ponds. O’Hern plans to add freshwater crayfish to the growing tanks and is looking forward to trying out new varieties of lettuces and herbs and experimenting with other vegetables.

The property, which is just under four acres, offers the possibility of traditional soil farming, as well. Freightenburgh hopes to use one of the buildings on the property for catering and private parties, O’Hern says. There also has been talk of hosting a farmers market, partnering with other producers/distributors for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share program and working with other restaurants, O’Hern says.

“We’re exploring a lot of different options to figure out what works best,” O’Hern says. “We’re really excited and can’t wait to see what develops.”

For more information on Refresh Farms, visit the Refresh Facebook page or email refreshfarms@gmail.com.

Margaret McCormick is a freelance writer and editor in Syracuse. She blogs about food at http://eatfirst.typepad.com. Follow her on Twitter at @mmccormickcny