By Ellen Simmons
Not too far out of Rochester in Brighton Township is a small business called Lettuce Heads Farm, run by four members of the Ziegler Family on land that has been in the family for five generations.
Nick Ziegler, his father Ken, his uncle Kevin and his cousin Kurk run the aquaponics operation in a 34X96-foot greenhouse raising several varieties of lettuce, Swiss chard, bok choy, mustard greens, onions, chives and other greens year round.
According to Nick, aquaponics and hydroponics are similar in several ways, because they both depend on water as their growing medium instead of soil, and they both use a recirculating system. However, a hydroponic system needs to be as sterile as possible, using synthetic materials to provide nutrition and pest control.
In an aquaponics set up Nick said, “The growers are trying to simulate an ecosystem,” using natural nutrients and pest management. Fish grow and dispense waste into circulating water, which is then filtered and sent to the plants. The plants absorb the nutrients, which cleans the water which is then returned to the fish. Insects such as lady bugs and green lacewings are used to control pests such as aphids and white flies. Nick added, “We control bugs with bugs. We are not certified organic, but we are as natural as possible.”
Around 500 tilapia swim in 600-gallon tanks in city water that is aerated at least a day to get rid of the chlorine. The fish are almost all male because they are bigger than females and their energy goes into growth instead of reproduction. They are purchased from a farm in Zanesville and kept until they reach their adult weight. They are then around two and a half to three pounds when they are sold whole or living. This usually happens twice a year when customers on an email list are notified. Nick emphasizes that any profits from selling the fish go right back into paying for their upkeep. The money makers in the business are the vegetables.
The idea for the business came when Nick’s uncle saw a similar operation in a magazine. He said, “That looks interesting, so we ordered a greenhouse, and that’s how we got started.” At that time Nick and his cousin were both working in other careers but were ready to try something new, and Nick says, “We both wanted to farm,” so they quit their jobs and joined the operation.
The produce is marketed locally through the Medina Farm Market each Saturday in the summer and through subscriptions to a CSA (community supported agriculture) organization where buyers pay a weekly fee, choose their products and pick them up each week. It is also sent to area restaurants and groceries.
The greenhouse is only part of the farming business because during the growing season, between four and five outdoor acres are used to plant cucumbers, tomatoes and “everything else you can imagine.” There is also a limited flower operation.
In addition, the family runs the Double Z Farms, which is a farrowing business for baby pigs, which are sold at the age of 18-to-25 days. Around 500 pigs a week are sold from the farm. All this is done on 350 acres that was purchased in the late 1800s by Nick’s great-grandfather, and Nick says, “Our dream is to have a diversified farm”
Not surprisingly, Nick’s hobbies include fish and plants. He has a two-tiered aquarium in the greenhouse that houses a variety of fish, plus he reserves a portion of the greenhouse for plants that interest him. These include rose of Sharon, pineapples, aloe vera, calla lilies, avocado trees, Malabar spinach and other assorted plants.
For more information, go to www.lettuceheadsfarm.com.