Cornerstone Organics near Long Sault expands into aquatic agriculture

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LONG SAULT – A decade ago the Lalonde-MacRae family started their farm, Cornerstone Organics, to accommodate their sons’ allergies.

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My, how it’s grown. The farm has since expanded into a full-fledged aquaponic forest and commercial kitchen – and more growth is on the way.

The aquaponics system is the latest addition to the farm. What was once an indoor pool is now a 1,500 square foot growing house with an additional 1,500 square feet of plant beds. The operation currently contains 4,000 plants, but once a greenhouse is erected on the property, there is potential for 10,000 plants, according to co-owner Matthew Lalonde, who operates the farm with his wife Jaime MacRae.

The former pool was filled with gravel and repurposed into an expansive growing operation of the edible variety after Lalonde bought the business Minor Aqua Greens from a family in Curran, Ont., a township just under an hour north of Cornwall. The former owner is advising and mentoring Lalonde through the process.

Lalonde said the current setup is only half of the system, which was fully operational when he purchased it. The remainder will be completed inside a greenhouse that will be situated a stone’s throw from the present operation.

Aquaponics is a manner of growing plants in water instead of soil, wherein fish inhabited water in a separate tank and create plant food through their waste. All the food plants need comes from bacteria and nutrients resulting from the fish. The water from the fish tank is used as the basis of the system, and in Lalonde’s case, is cycled through beneath styrofoam rafts resting on top of water beds.

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Lalonde is a plumber by trade, and has taught plumbing at Algonquin College in Ottawa, perfectly equipping him for this project.

Lalonde created the additional square footage of growing space by building a tiered system, allowing him to grow on a combined 1,500 square foot surface within a building of the same size.

The three levels of aquaponic growing beds are platform-like structures reminiscent of scaffolding, filled with fish fertilized water suspended on metal frames. The styrofoam floats in what Lalonde called flood tables, the area holding the water.

“The fish actually start it, the fish are like the heart of the whole system,” said Lalonde, who is using tilapia, which have a hearty resistance to temperature changes.

The water is sourced from a 500-gallon tank which houses the growing tilapia. The fish reside in a massive blue tub connected to a series of pipes both underground and above, which flood the plant beds and cycle back to the fish and main filter.

The water is heated indirectly and balanced between the large fish tank and the suspended plant beds while valves control the volume of water entering the flood tables.

The pipe network and tiered set-up allows water to be pumped to the top level and flow downwards, making effective use of the nutrients the fish offer.

“It’s a whole ecosystem inside here,” Lalonde said.

He explained that when the fish excrete waste, the bacteria present breaks down the waste so that the plants can absorb it through their root systems. The plant itself sits on top of the styrofoam raft while the root system beneath takes in the water.

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It’s a balancing act, considering Lalonde is not using any synthetic nutrients. He alternates adding calcium and potassium to the system while monitoring the water chemistry to ensure the different elements are at a level where they can be absorbed by the plants.

“[I] just gotta build this system to get it all up to par,” he said. “The ecosystem part is it does it on its own.”

The plants start as seedlings grown in peat moss pods and are transferred to the styrofoam rafts after two weeks. The rafts rest on the surface of the water and make up the floating plant beds. Lalonde said plants can be harvested after three or four weeks, making the whole process only a six-week affair from seed to table.

As the operation is in its infancy, produce consists of leafy greens and herbs like kale, bok choi, romaine lettuce, spinach, cilantro and basil. Lalonde explained part of the experimentation is finding out what leafy vegetables clients want, how fast the plants take to grow and where they should be situated.

Eventually, the farm will graduate to growing tomato and pepper plants, but without the styrofoam as the plants would be too heavy to be supported by the rafts.

Once the tilapia are too large for use in the system, they’ll be  butchered out a few times a year, as the family plans to create a consistent fish market, said MacRae.

“We just want to work on the farm and have people come over to the farm and teach people,” Lalonde said. “It helps build our lifestyle that we want to live.”

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He added it’s nice to be able to supply Cornwall with very local produce so that a portion of the population does not have to worry about going to the grocery store.

Currently, Cornerstone Organics operates a community supported agriculture (CSA) program where customers pay a flat rate of $400 which guarantees them a share of both the aquaponic and in-ground gardens delivered weekly for 16 weeks. The farm currently delivers to 30 customers who take part in the program.

According to Lalonde, the CSA program supports the farmer in buying seeds and preparing for the season while guaranteeing a consistent food supply to the community.

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