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aquaponics at Stewart farms

This New Brunswick Licensed Producer Is Using Aquaponics To Grow ‘Zero Waste’ Cannabis

Tanner Stewart, co-founder and CEO of Stewart Vertical Farms Inc., is using aquaponics to build a sustainable future. Stewart spent two years as a tree planter after high school, but he knew this wasn’t a great long-term career path. So, when he was 21 years old, he decided to become an entrepreneur.

His first business was in the construction industry, a company he grew to generate more than $40 million a year, while employing over 200 tradespeople. “But then, roughly six years ago, I had a major life-changing event. My wife became pregnant with our first child. And at that moment I panicked and started questioning everything I was doing in my life,” he recalls.

Where was he going? What kind of father would he be? And how could he set an inspirational example for his child by making the world a better place? These were the questions he asked himself as he pondered the future.

“I was serendipitously introduced to two agriculture technology start-ups,” he recalls. “One processed waste biomass using an indoor semi-closed loop system, and the other developed an indoor vertical aquaponics farm focused on the production of leafy greens. I became hooked on the concept and the potential to create amazing products with little to no waste. And since then, I haven’t looked back.

“In fact, I brought my entire family along for the ride.”

Aquaponics: A Journey to Zero Waste

With his wife, Sherie, Tanner began to lay the groundwork for a company that would produce cannabis sustainably. Today, Stewart Farms is a licensed producer of medical cannabis, with production headquarters in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. From this 100,000-square-foot building on 29 acres of land, Stewart Farms produces a variety of products, including CBD and THC-infused bath bombs. Indeed, one of its bestsellers in light of the global stress fest that was 2020 is a cannabis inspired wellness kit.

Stewart explains that aquaponics is the marriage of fish farming and plant production into a single system that makes use of fish water to supply the nutrients to the plants. Where a fish farm normally creates a significant waste stream when built on its own, that waste stream is actually a vibrant source of nutrients created from a living ecosystem, “arguably on par with or even greater than the best of living soil.”

Tanner Stewart, co-founder and CEO of Stewart Farms

“The earliest forms of aquaponics systems were traced back to the ancient Aztec people who lived in central Mexico in the year of 1000 AD,” he says. “Plants were raised on stationary and sometimes movable islands, and waste materials were dredged up from the canals and surrounding cities and they were used to manually irrigate the plants. So the overall philosophy of an aquaponics farmer is based on the principles of mimicking Mother Nature’s ecosystems and ultimately setting out on a journey to zero waste.”

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Misconception in the Agriculture Industry

Most people think of true sustainability as a situation where companies, humans, and other life exist on the planet, all creating little to no impact. But Stewart recognizes that people are having a hard time wrapping their heads around how to personally approach it in their households (should they have the financial luxury to consider it) and as well in their businesses. 

“I think there’s a big misconception in the agriculture industry about where the carbon footprint comes from,” Stewart says. “Everybody likes to focus on food miles—distance of transportation of food—but that’s minuscule in the grand scheme of things. The carbon footprint is from the chemicals we produce—the synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides—and layer onto the land year after year. It’s a massive endeavour to do this.”

The problem with this approach, according to Stewart? “Once you kill off the soil, you have to keep pumping nutrients back into it.”

Bottom Line: Making Better Products

What’s the solution? Since most consumers won’t happily pay double for a sustainable product just because it’s made in an eco-friendly way, Stewart believes that we should use the technology we have to make better products that should eventually cost less. He also believes that no environmentally-driven entrepreneur should be so focused on the mission that they lose sight of the margin.

“If you’ve decided to become one of these sustainable companies, investors, or individuals, it’s crucial that you ensure profitability and financial sustainability within all your endeavours,” he says. “The more money you make, the more money will get invested into a better tomorrow.”

Stewart’s Steps to Sustainability

  1. Know your market. Understand the upper limits of your market and set your pricing targets. It should be every sustainable company’s goal to produce at costs that are less than or equal to their competitors. 
  2. Understand your supply chain. Like any good ‘waste-aholic,’ the first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem. Understand that every input in your operation has an impact. Your goal should be to lower the impact and control the cost as you do so.
  3. Build your roadmap. Once you understand what your consumers are willing to pay as well as the environmental impact of your supply chain, make changes as you find better solutions. Sometimes you just have to wait until the world catches up to what you want and need.