Aquaponics enterprise grows from a youthful hobby into a business

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Springworks founder 20-year-old Trevor Kenkel stands near a crop of basil grown using an aquaponics system that operates in a 6,000 square-foot greenhouse. Kenkel, a Glacier High School graduate, has been interested in aquaponics as a sustainable method of agriculture since building his first system at 14.

Glacier High School graduate Trevor Kenkel has bounced back from a series of debilitating concussions that took him off the football field and put him behind five 1,200-gallon fish tanks at his East Coast aquaponics farm, Springworks.

Kenkel, 20, has been interested in sustainable agriculture methods since he was a young teen. When he discovered aquaponics, he was hooked and built his first system in the garage of his family’s Kalispell home when he was 14 years old.

“I started in the garage with a small tank, but the systems kept getting bigger and bigger,” Kenkel said.

His family was enjoying the fruits of his labor and encouraged him to build a bigger system.

“I moved out to a greenhouse and tested variables like light and heat,” Kenkel said. “At that point, the system was big enough to grow enough greens for my family, neighbors and I started selling to local restaurants.”

Kenkel saw aquaponics as an answer to sustainable, year-round agriculture and started developing the business plan that would become Springworks. Six years, three systems and a move to Maine later, the seed for Springworks was planted.

“Aquaponics is less water, less space and gives you nutrient-dense produce. It opens up places like Montana and Maine to having year-round local produce,” Kenkel said.

Springworks operates out of a 6,000 square-foot greenhouse in Lisbon, Maine. At the same time Kenkel is a full-time student studying biology at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

Recently Kenkel and his team harvested the first organic aquaponic crops — lettuce, basil and mizuna (a Japanese mustard green). The harvests were small, but it takes time to establish an ecosystem, Kenkel said.

The plants sit in net pots suspended in water circulated from tanks stocked with tilapia. The plants absorb nutrients from fish waste and in turn filter the water that is recirculated to the fish — completing a self-sustaining cycle.

“With aquaponics, you really need to build this relationship between fish, bacteria and plants,” Kenkel said.

The greens are sold at a retail farm stand and to restaurants. At the same time, Springworks launched the sale of MicroFarm, a home aquaponic garden that sits on top of a traditional 10-gallon fish tank.

“I really want to get people thinking about sustainable agriculture,” Kenkel said.

Aquaponics was a saving grace during Kenkel’s recovery from three serious concussions that left him hypersensitive to light and sound and forced him to rest in a dark room for months.

“I think that helped me in the recovery process. I was able to go out 15 or 20 minutes a day to look at the plants and fish and plant seeds,” Kenkel said.

In 2012, Kenkel sustained two consecutive concussions his senior year while playing football for Glacier High School Wolfpack.

After the first concussion, Kenkel said, the team trainer quizzed him with basic questions such as what day of the week it was and where he was. He was cleared and sent back out on the field, according to Kenkel.

Back on the field, Kenkel suffered a second concussion — what is known as second-impact syndrome, which occurs when the first concussion hasn’t healed, resulting in rapid and potentially fatal swelling.

The concussions essentially ended his football career. At the time, Kenkel was on his way to college recruitment.

Going to high school and focusing with an injured brain was very challenging for Kenkel. He suffered memory loss and headaches and had trouble sleeping.

“I remember in Spanish class I went to take a simple test and I couldn’t remember any words,” Kenkel said.

After roughly four months of recovery, Kenkel was told by medical professionals he could return to normal activities, which for the young Montanan was skiing.

But on the slopes, he fell.

“I got another concussion. It certainly wasn’t something that would give a normal person a concussion, but my brain at the time, it had a much larger effect,” Kenkel said.

This time, Kenkel was unable to return to the demands of school. Fortunately for him, the high-achieving student had enough credits to graduate a semester early.

“Before, I had been working through a lot of pain to get my work done,” Kenkel said, but added it was difficult not be able to do anything but rest and heal. “One of the most challenging things is to go through a day without learning.”

“This whole time, I think the one thing I did was work with my aquaponic system,” he said.

Eventually, Kenkel was referred to the Sports Concussion Clinic at the MassGeneral Hospital for Children. His family moved permanently from Kalispell to Massachusetts so that Kenkel could be closer to his treatment.

Kenkel completed his care at MassGeneral June 2014.

Traces of his head injuries still come in the form of headaches. Kenkel said he just has to manage time around the possibility that he may get a severe headache.

He also has had to learn to delegate more tasks. That has been a challenge, the young entrepreneur said, because he has been the sole source of the business for so long.

And Kenkel is glad that contact sports-related concussions have become a high profile topic brought to light, in part, by ex-NFL players.

“I hope that people continue to be educated on the topic and that coaches won’t hesitate from pulling even their best player if they suspect they have a head injury,” Kenkel said.

For now, Kenkel pours his energy into school and expanding Springworks with help from his team of family and friends.

“If everything goes well, we’ll double production to half a million heads of lettuce,” Kenkel said. “We’ll be doing some sustainable soil methods with some berries.”

For more information, visit www.springworksfarm.com.


Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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