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Stewart Farms Fresh Brings Aquaponics to Oxford

Kim and Lee Stewart moved to Oxford in February with plans to open the first aquaponic farming operation in the state of Mississippi.

This week, the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors approved the farm’s final site plan, bringing their dream one step closer to reality. In addition to three glass and polycarbonate greenhouses spanning eight acres, Stewart Farms Fresh will also feature a farmer’s market area where vendors can sell their goods, an underground meat smoker and fresh fish market, with fresh Gulf seafood trucked in weekly.

“I’ve farmed for 40 years. I was born in it, and I think I can raise anything in any way,” Lee said. “As far as the greenhouses go, this is the dream to a farmer, because I’m not sitting there with my stomach tied up at night. I know the temperature, I’m not limited by season. This is going to be like a little playground for me.”

The Stewarts farmed 70,000 acres near Helena, Ark., before relocating to Oxford this year, but said Lafayette County is the best place they could have chosen for their farm. Lee comes from a family of commercial fishermen and farmers, something he said will help in this venture.

The aquaponic farming method is one that is completely self-sufficient. Aquaponics recirculates water from a fish tank through a vegetable grow bed. Nutrients from the fish waste feed the plants, and the plants filter the water to keep the fish healthy.

They have taken courses in North Carolina to learn the process firsthand, as well as visited the Mid-South’s only other aquaponic operation outside Birmingham, Ala.

“The fish produce ammonia, which you have to convert to nitrates for the plants to use,” Kim said. “It goes through a biofilter that’s actually got natural bacteria that does the conversion, so the byproducts from the fish are converted for the plant food. And then in the process, the roots from the plant system clean up the water, so it’s a continuous water flow.”

The Stewarts will be using tilapia in their greenhouses, as well as all-natural methods for pest management and fertilization. Because everything is self-contained, outside environmental factors will not affect the plants, which will allow the Stewarts to sell a wider variety of produce year-round.

“It’s amazing what you can grow per square foot, in the ground versus in the greenhouses. It’s 10 times more, very productive,” Kim said. “No herbicides, no pesticides, no chemicals. It’s a challenge, but you have to fight that a different way.”

Transparency from farm to table is one thing the Stewarts said is important to them. Everything they grow, and the vendors who sell their products at the market, will be labeled and certified as 100 percent organic.

“What’s so important to us is to be transparent with everybody, and buy naturally grown local produce,” Lee said. “We also want to label everything we’re selling, nothing will be hidden.”

There are already farmers markets in the area, such as the Midtown Farmers Market and Oxford City Market. However, the Stewarts said they have no intention of infringing on other businesses. Instead, they would like to open their market as a place local vendors can come to on days when they’re not at another market, or the markets are closed.

“I don’t want any competition. I want to work with everybody,” Lee said. “If I’m going to be somebody’s competition, I’m not going to do it.”

After a long day, Lee said he’d like to see the market transform into a family friendly space for people to stop by, listen to music and enjoy crawfish and shrimp boils in the evenings.

The Stewarts said, depending upon the weather, phase one of the farm could be up and running as early as June 2018. Their website is still under construction, but will be online soon.