Nancy Mattingly, 67, became interested in aquaponics when, while visiting her daughter, she noticed a plant thriving in her beta aquarium on her desk.
It was 1992 and she remained interested until she started Purple Thumb Farms in 2020 in Elizabethtown. She retired as a nurse, left the US Air Force and finally decided to start the aquaponics farm.
Mattingly said aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture – caring for fish – and hydroponics – caring for plants in water.
“The difference between aquaponics and direct hydroponics is that in direct hydroponics there are no nutrients or minerals that the plants can get because it’s tap water, you have to so add all the chemicals to give the plants what they need,” she said. “With the aquaponics set up, you’re using aquaculture with the fish in the four 500-gallon tanks that have tilapia and koi.”
The waste produced by the fish is filtered out and provides nutrients to plants grown hydroponically, she said.
This is done through a series of pipes, mineralization tanks and filters in Mattingly’s greenhouse. The filtered water can then return to the tanks.
“It’s a natural system,” she says.
It does not use chemicals. Because the water goes back through the system and back to the fish, you can’t use chemicals to risk killing the fish, she said.
There is a seeding process that takes place in two phases before being placed on the floating beds for growth. She harvests from the front of the bed first and the new plants go out the back, so by the time she completes the harvest cycle, those new plants are in the front, fully grown and ready to harvest.
She always goes through trial and error to make sure everything goes well with the tanks and what she grows.
After launching the aquaponics system, Mattingly successfully grew a variety of vegetables and herbs. Then she had health issues, learning that she had a genetic heart condition and wasn’t able to take care of the crops as much while recovering. This caused algae and other problems and Mattingly now has to start over.
Right now she is experimenting to see what grows best with the system.
She is also looking for material to write a book about the farmers’ experience to help others build and troubleshoot their own systems. She wants it to be a resource for others.
Currently, in his greenhouse, Mattingly grows lettuce, chives, marigolds, dill and lemon basil. She is also experimenting with tomatoes to see how they will behave.
Plants don’t have to fight the outside elements either. She is experimenting with shade cloths to see which plants need more shade. It will also be able to grow products in winter that will not be in season and cannot be grown locally during this period.
Mattingly is in business with his daughter Jennifer Bocanegra.
“She’s the one managing the money and I’m the farmer spending the money,” she joked.
The idea for the farm’s name came from a book Mattingly read in the 1970s called “Houseplants for the Purple Thumb”.
Someone with a purple thumb can’t grow things and must learn to have a green thumb, she said.
Mattingly was a single mother in the Air Force and became resourceful by learning to do things on her own. She continues to do so in her business venture. Mattingly learned about plumbing, electricity and other things needed to create his aquaponics farm.
When she has everything in place and has obtained her Good Agricultural Practices certificate, she will not only sell the produce grown to a company that supplies grocery stores, hospitals, etc., she will also sell the Koi for the pets and tilapia for food. She also wants to experiment with growing flowers.
“I want to provide good food to people who can’t afford it, because it’s cheap to process,” she said. “And I really want to bring the kids here.”
She wants to be able to bring school classes to the farm to see something that could be part of the future of farming. And she wants to expand to have more aquaponic farms in the area and in other states.
The process, she said, leaves a small environmental footprint and can be sustainable.
To learn more about Purple Thumb Farms, find them on Facebook.