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DOVER — If a foreign pathogen were to get inside the production systems of 302 Aquaponics in north Dover, the food-growing business could collapse — but when a virus infected the entire world, it meant that the futuristic farm’s owners had to work harder and get creative.
To go inside the production facility at 302 Aquaponics on Simms Woods Road near U.S. 1, visitors must wash their hands and walk through a disinfecting shoe bath to make sure no dangerous foreign biological entities infect its facility.
In a large greenhouse, the company — owned by Doug and Katie Wood — grows multiple types of organic lettuce and tilapia in a self-contained system. The fish live at one end of the growing space. The water that they live in circulates out to large tanks where different varieties of lettuce grow. The lettuces are planted into holes in floating structures that provide support and allow their roots to reach into the nutrient-rich water.
As the plants mature and are harvested, the floating beds are pushed forward to make room for new seedlings.
The couple – both former educators — started their venture about three years ago.
“We had our first viable product come off three weeks before (COVID-19) hit. Our original business plan was to sell to restaurants and to schools. Clearly, that needed to change. We kind of ducked and weaved our way through (COVID-19),” Katie Wood said.
Part of the 302 Aquaponics’ ducking and weaving was working on finding new customers and getting creative with where and what they sold.
“Doug would go out in the van and make deliveries in neighborhoods until we got a big enough base where we could set up times and places for stops. We got into farmer’s markets. That we never expected to do,” Ms. Wood said.
The food producer expanded to service and to attend farmers markets throughout the First State. When it was time to begin harvesting their fish, they found a producer in Philadelphia to process their product for them. The couple will also sell some of their nutrient-rich water for gardeners.
They expanded their website and opened their lobby to single-person sales.
“We had to get creative and think outside of the box. What else can we do? What are our options? What other markets are available? We are now delivering to offices,” Ms. Wood said.
Now local customers that want fresh lettuce delivered to their work just have to contact 302 Aquaponics and setup a time.
“If you want to schedule once a week lettuce orders that are pre-ordered, we’ll bring it to your office,” she said. “You can have it at the office or take it home and have your lettuce for the week.”
Though students weren’t in many schools throughout the pandemic, 302 Aquaponics was able to service some districts during the COVID-19 shut down.
“We did get back into schools during (COVID-19) when they had to start feeding their communities. That kept us going,” Doug Wood said.
Starting a business just before a global pandemic began forced the Woods to adapt and move into new areas. Though hard, the work seems to be paying off.
“We’ll go through periods of darkness and then we won’t have enough product to sell,” Mr. Wood said. “I think this fall we are in a much better place than we were last year. Last year, the schools weren’t even sure they would go back.”
The lessons the duo learned from the pandemic are helping them with new challenges that other businesses are facing, like the rising cost of supplies.
“The prices of fish food went up $400 this month. That’s the ebb and flow of it. It’s been a lot more stressful than I thought,” Mr. Wood said.
Another way 302 Aquaponics’ owners are ducking and weaving through the effects of the global pandemic is embracing agrotourism.
Their facility sits on land that offers space for special events and private gatherings nestled between their greenhouse facility and some conventional agriculture efforts.
The Woods have hosted a couple of events and are hoping to do more in the future.
“We really feel like ag-tourism is where people are interested in. They are feeling a bit back to their roots and wanting to get out and do some different things,” Ms. Wood said.
They currently offer tours, and field trips for large schools and small groups for a fee. They also offer consulting services to someone thinking of starting their own business, the Woods and their staff are available to help.
“We don’t have a lot of indoor space, but we do have the grounds,” Ms. Wood added.
For more information on 302 Aquaponics, to purchase their products, set up drop off location or plan a field trip or event visit www.302aquaponics.com or call 302-632-1069.