Interview with Lisa Jander and Kendell Lang, Founders of Puerto Rico’s First Indoor, Vertical Aquaponics Venture, Fusion Farms
Fusion Farms is the first indoor aquaponic farm of its kind on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. Or at least it will be once the vertical planter racks have been stacked and the fish successfully established inside their new habitats!
For the past few years, husband and wife team, Kendell Lang and Lisa Jander have been hard at work planning and doing battle to get their concept for a new local, sustainable, and reliable source of fresh produce established in Puerto Rico. The concept seeks to transform the unused Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company (PRIDCO) buildings that are scattered across the island into hurricane-protected, vertical aquaponic farms. Just this past month, they celebrated a major milestone when they were handed the keys to their pilot facility in Mayagüez, western Puerto Rico, and received their first-ever delivery of farming equipment.
It’s been a hard slog for the couple who moved down from San Diego in 2018 to pursue their dream of helping Puerto Rico become more food sovereign and less dependent on imports from the United States and further afield. Every victory constituted the surmounting of exponentially more trials but with the keys to their new facility in hand and the equipment deliveries beginning to arrive, their dream of establishing a hurricane-protected farm is beginning to physically manifest. We sat down to chat with Kendell and Lisa about their vision for Fusion Farms and for their new home, Puerto Rico.
Q: What is the concept behind Fusion Farms?
Kendell: “Fusion Farms is a hurricane-protected, aquaponic vertical farm that constitutes a piece of the puzzle for a solution to food sovereignty for the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico.”
Q: What does that mean day-to-day at Fusion Farms?
Kendell: “Essentially, we are building an urban farm inside of a hurricane protected building. We will have vertical rack structures that use the nutrient-rich water from fish tanks to provide soil-less growing conditions for hyper-local fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, and herbs to the local market.”
Lisa: “In other words, our produce does not have to be shipped fifteen hundred miles from the United States or other countries, which is currently the case for much of Puerto Rico. Right now, more than 90% of the food that is consumed on the island is shipped in from other places around the world, not just the United States. Before it is shipped, it sits on the docks for several days and is subjected to pesticides and the Jones Act. By the time it gets to Puerto Rico, the nutrients have pretty much leached out of the food.”
Q: Aside from establishing a farm, what is the added value you are offering Puerto Rico?
Kendell: “The value-add that we are creating is a hurricane protected food source on the island, which will keep producing fresh, healthy, local food even if and when Puerto Rico is subjected to another violent storm. During Hurricane Maria, food shortages became a critical issue because 80% of the farms were completely destroyed. Being located in a hurricane hotspot means that the farms of the future on Puerto Rico need to be able to withstand hurricane-force winds and torrential downpours of rain. Fusion Farms is innovating and introducing that solution.
Q: Would you explain your solution?
Lisa: “We are re-purposing a dormant asset of the Puerto Rico government; there are hundreds of these concrete buildings located throughout the island, many of which are vacant or abandoned. We are taking that asset and converting it into revenue and property tax-generating, job-creating, and food growing solutions. Aquaponics and vertical farming are not new farming techniques and we are not reinventing the wheel. Where Fusion Farms is unique is that it’s merging these technologies into a hurricane protected solution to cater to the circumstances in Puerto Rico.”
“Our food never has to travel more than 100 miles to reach the people of Puerto Rico”
Kendell: “Our pilot project in Mayagüez is an 11,500 sq. ft. concrete warehouse on 1.47 acres of land. This building was constructed in 1961 and has survived all the hurricanes that have affected the island, from Hurricanes George and Irma to Maria, and is standing virtually untouched. We are taking this resilient, concrete warehouse and converting it into an urban aquaponic farm with racks, grow troughs, seed trays, and LED grow lights to establish a completely controlled indoor environment. Solar panels will power the lights and we will be collecting rainwater for fish and plants.”
Q: Why are there so many abandoned concrete warehouses on Puerto Rico?
Kendell: “Over the past few decades, the expiration of certain tax incentives in the pharmaceutical industry lead to economic problems that, in turn, caused these buildings to become vacant. In that vacancy, they fell into a bit of disrepair and, in some cases, were subject to vandalism. They have just been sitting empty so there is a tremendous glut of abandoned buildings all over the island for economic reasons.”
Q: What is it about these buildings that have shielded them from hurricanes?
Kendell: “The industrial and commercial buildings on Puerto Rico, and particularly in population-dense areas, have been designed to withstand hurricanes. The Caribbean is a hurricane zone so it’s just the nature of the beast. The construction standard for these types of buildings is concrete reinforced with steel rebar, which is designed to withstand 300 mph winds. The fastest recorded winds for hurricane Maria were something like 270 mph and so these buildings were predominantly left intact.”
Q: What crops will you grow in your pilot facility?
Lisa: “Ultimately, our goal is to produce a high volume and variety of vegetables, leafy greens, and herbs – as well as provide a fresh source of fish protein. Initially, however, we will be focusing on growing microgreens, and basil to cure the system, which we will be able to harvest on a three to four-week growth cycle.”
Q: Aside from being hurricane protected, what sets Fusion Farms aside from traditional agriculture?
Kendell: “Using vertical farming techniques – racks of plants stacked one on top of the other – and growing 24 hours a day with optimal indoor growing conditions and continuous artificial sunlight, we are able to produce 9 to 12 times what a traditional farm could generate in the same square footage! We are also much more efficient, use 10% or less water than traditional farming, and maintain completely organic standards, which means no herbicides, pesticides, or chemicals. All the nutrients our plants will need will be fed to them aquaponically via the nutrient-rich from the Tilapia in our fish tanks. This water is then fed back into the fish tanks. It is an ideal ecosystem.”
Q: If the farming techniques aren’t new and these abandon buildings have stood for decades, why has Fusion Farms’ model never been done before?
Lisa: “It took Hurricane Maria to draw the necessary attention and investment to the island, really. Currently, there is a list of top ten initiatives to help fix Puerto Rico’s ailing economic engine and all the bad press about its debt, corruption, and challenges. The catastrophe caused by Hurricane Maria created awareness and an opportunity for reconstruction, using the federal dollars that have been made available to the island. This could recast the vision of Puerto Rico to be a world leader and a stepping-off point to connect the Americas because of its geographic position, bilingual culture, and heritage of being a US territory.”
Kendell: “Post-hurricane, there have been several huge incentives to revive the economy, and the number one initiative for job creation is agricultural, which right now accounts for less than 1% of the GDP of Puerto Rico. This is where the door has been opened for initiatives like Fusion Farms. Imagine, if the island is able to grow 80% of the needed fresh produce on the island, Puerto Rico could establish a $3.5 billion economic turnaround that will not only create 88 thousand jobs, but will also provide a purpose for all the unused real estate. That positions Puerto Rico to become a net exporter with revenue-generating real estate instead of dead assets on the books of the government.”
Q: Why is local food production important, particularly in Puerto Rico?
Lisa: “We advocate strongly for hyper-local food production but not exclusively for the reasons most people do, which is freshness and taste. Our rationale has to do with the actual nutrient value of the produce and how “food miles” affect it. The fact is scientifically understood – the longer fresh food remains separated from its living parent plant, the more its nutrients break down or leach out, whether by exposure to oxygen, light, or warmer temperatures, etc. For example, spinach loses 90% of its Vitamin C content within 24 hours of harvest. This really highlights the importance of eating fresh, locally grown produce.
“The food Puerto Rico currently receives has traveled thousands of miles and spent weeks in transit, and so it is virtually lifeless and leached of all nutrients by the time it hits grocery store shelves. Nutritional science indicates that eating local and within hours, not days or weeks, of harvesting is the healthiest way to go and this is just one of the goals that Fusion Farms is driven to achieve.”
Kendell: “That’s right: our philosophy of ‘seed to table’ means that you purchase or harvest greens when you plan to eat them and eat them while they’re still fresh.”
Q: Where are you in the process of establishing Fusion Farms today?
Kendell: “We have completed our business plan, put together our advisory board, and have gathered together a world-class team of advisors, both technical and agricultural. We have also completed all of our filings so we are a corporation in good standing and have been applied for and registered as a bonafide agricultural business with the Department of Agriculture in Puerto Rico. We have our SAM.gov certification, which means that we are a qualified federal contractor and are approved to apply for, and have completed, our application for a Rural Energy of America land grant from the USDA. That was submitted April 1st, 2019.
“A major success for us was the awarding of $250,000 in grant money from PRIDCO as part of our overall incentive program to make all this work. This, in addition to the money we raised through our crowd-funding campaign on StartEngine.com, has enabled us to sign the lease and take ownership of our pilot facility in Mayagüez and start purchasing farming equipment, the first delivery of which we received just this past month.”
Lisa: “We are well on our way to establishing a reliable, sustainable, hurricane-protected source of fresh produce for Puerto Rico!”
Q: Beyond the pilot facility, what is the goal for Fusion Farms?
Lisa: “Ultimately, our goal is to prove out a repeatable, scalable model for vertical aquaponics facilities that we can transplant to other facilities across Puerto Rico, thereby increasing the amount and variety of fresh, local produce and decreasing the island’s dependence on imports. This model can also be transplanted on Puerto Rico’s island neighbors who are also routinely affected by Atlantic Ocean hurricanes, and to other remote areas in the world that could benefit enormously from a local source of fresh produce.”