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Meet My Farmer: Fishheads Aquaponics Farm

Catfish are jumpin’; aquaponics system pumpin’;

growing lettuce out in Sardis will never be the same.

Please forgive, Doobie Brothers! We couldn’t help ourselves. Giving a new twist to a classic song just seemed like a good way to celebrate two pretty special farmers: Doug and Lisa Dojan of Fisheads.

Six years ago, these two didn’t fancy themselves farmers at all. Doug had been (and continues to work) in construction. Lisa is a former 4th-grade teacher. Today these two grow lettuce in a pristine, all natural, indoor system that produces more leafy greens than they ever imagined possible. In fact, Doug projects that they will grow at least 20,000 pounds of lettuce for sale to the local community in 2018.

And they do it all with the help of 700 catfish.

Aquaponics is a system of agriculture in which fish waste supplies nutrients for plants to grow. At Fisheads, the fish are raised in an area separated from the lettuce. Filtered water from their big tank is pumped into the greenhouse where the veggies grow soil-free. The water is recycled within the closed-loop, greatly reducing the natural resources and labor normally required to grow veggies in the ground.

Fisheads started back in 2011 as an idea, Doug said. They were watching a news show on television about some “crazy thing” that turned out to be aquaculture.

After it was finished, Lisa turned to Doug and said, “That would work in Sardis.” The comment caught him by surprise. “Our home was in Charleston,” he laughed. But for some unknown reason at that time, Lisa wasn’t seeing this vision for coastal South Carolina. Rather, she was seeing aquaponics as the perfect, job-creating enterprise for her childhood home, back in rural Georgia, where her parents were living. “Ten months later,” Doug said, they moved to Sardis and began their new lives as lettuce farmers.

The Dojan’s journey started with a solid commitment to research and field tests. “We realized that very few people have managed to do this in a profitable and eco-friendly way,” notes Doug. But he was determined to change that. Doug and Lisa studied extensively under the tutelage of an aquaponics farmer in Hawaii and another in Germany. They also borrowed wisdom from greenhouse techniques practiced in China. During their first year of fine-tuning, they gave away more than 4000 pounds of lettuce to neighbors. “We had a lot to learn,” Doug said.

The tables have certainly turned since those startup months. Now, the Dojans are the local experts, providing guidance to others, especially science teachers who see aquaponics as a valuable teaching experience. For example, a biology teacher at Davidson School of Fine Arts in Augusta brought his class out to Fisheads before starting his own aquaponics system at school several years ago, said Lisa.

Fresh, local produce is very hard to find in rural areas like Sardis. As such, Fisheads is deeply committed to improving the availability of good food by selling at farmers markets that are as close to home as possible. Their beautiful variety of six different lettuces (3 romaine lettuces, 2 green leaf lettuces and 1 red leaf lettuce) is available through ALG’s Online Market as well as at the Statesboro Farmers Market and the Harvest Bright Farmers Market in Waynesboro.

Doug and Lisa are equality committed to helping improve the quality of food within the local school systems. In fact, the cafeterias at Burke County Schools currently purchase hundreds of pounds of lettuce for their students every month, and Richmond County has begun to follow suit. It is a very exciting time for Farm to School efforts throughout the CSRA and we’ve all noticed that Fisheads is at the head of the pack.

Best part about growing lettuce aquaponically? All those grown-up fish!!! The Dojans started with tilapia, but have recently determined that catfish are ideal for their system. “I imagine we’ll need to have a catfish sale on the farm for friends and family soon,” laughed Doug. “They’re getting big fast.”

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