DAVENPORT, Iowa (KWQC) – When Meghan Kiroff decided one day she wanted to grow pumpkins, there was an obvious problem.
“We are city dwellers and our backyard doesn’t have any space that would work for gardening,” said Cody Kiroff, Meghan’s husband. “I started researching what options were available for container gardening, and then I stumbled upon hydroponics.”
Hydroponics, the growing of plants in nutrient-enriched water instead of soil, immediately intrigued Kiroff since he holds a degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Iowa.
“I’m a total nerd,” Kiroff said. “The biology and chemistry components drew me in.”
Cody and Meghan Kiroff started Hungry Goat Farms in Davenport, Iowa in 2015.
The Davenport couple who both have day jobs as lawyers were so pleased with the green vegetables produced in their experiment that they took a batch to a farmers’ market.
The reaction was so positive the Kiroffs decided to start Hungry Goat Farms in January 2015, soon converting from hydroponics to aquaponics.
“We switched to aquaponics in 2016 so that we could get organic certification and produce a product that is more sustainable, has a better shelf life, and is overall better for the environment,” Kiroff said.
Aquaponics utilizes organically filtered fish waste to provide nutrients for crops, hence the Kiroffs’ northwest Davenport greenhouse now contains a 1,200-gallon aquarium stocked with 400 goldfish.
The fish waste is sent through a system of recycled plastic, rocks, and earthworms that filters out the nutrients which are then forwarded on to the water feeding rows of lettuces, herbs, and microgreens.
“This is a completely closed-loop system with no run-off or discharge water that can be harmful to the environment,” Kiroff said, adding the system uses only 10% of the water that would be used by a traditional farm of similar size.
On a Wednesday in mid-February, neat lines of lettuce, chives, and kale are suspended above long troughs so only their roots dangle into the water below, the way someone might sit on the edge of a pool with only their lower legs submerged.
Hungry Goat Farms produces lettuce, chives, kale and other greens year-round using aquaponics.
“The nice thing about growing in water as opposed to soil is you’re not fighting weeds,” Kiroff explains.
“The biggest benefit of all is taste and nutrition. Once it’s harvested, or removed from the ground, or in our case removed from the nutrient-rich water, [a plant] begins to die. So, within two days you lose about half of the nutritional content of your produce, whereas ours, since you’re buying it within 12 hours, usually, of harvest, the nutritional value is at least two times greater.”
Hy-Vee grocery stores in the Quad Cities recently began carrying Hungry Goat produce, and Kiroff says each new shipment is often gone within 48 hours.
“At this point, we can’t even meet their demand. They’re asking for more and we’re not able to push more until we expand.”
Hy-Vee grocery stores in the Quad Cities recently began selling Hungry Goat Farms produce.
One expansion challenge will be working out ways to compensate for periods of little sunshine which can slow down plant growth, a problem recently highlighted during a lengthy stretch of gloomy, overcast days last December and January.
Hurdles are to be expected when one is a trailblazer.
“We are, to my knowledge, the only organic hydroponic or aquaponic grower in the entire state of Iowa,” Kiroff said.
Kiroff’s greenhouse is literally surrounded by hundreds of acres of sprawling farmland just off Interstate 80.
Gesturing out over that expanse, Kiroff says new agriculture methods will become more vital as a growing world population continues taxing traditional farming.
“The problem is we are quickly running out of good farmland and our food production would need to increase by 70% to meet the anticipated 9.1 billion people in 2050,” Kiroff said. “Because of this, alternative farming methods need to be employed to meet the demand of the future.”
To learn more about aquaponics or to request a tour of the Kiroffs’ operation, visit their website here.