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Inside Tucson Business: Food from fish- Farming sustainably with aquaponic produce
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Inside Tucson Business: Food from fish- Farming sustainably with aquaponic produce

In 1744, that old contrarian Mary used silver bells and cockle shells to make her garden grow. Some 275 years later, it’s Chef Ken Harvey who’s transposing that cadence to aquaponics and hydroponics for gardening success.

It began years ago with a pledge to provide his guests at Loews Ventana Canyon with food made from the freshest possible ingredients, and Harvey hasn’t cut any corners in sourcing his meats, cheeses, breads and produce from sustainable purveyors.

But it was his first meeting with the founders of Merchant’s Garden, a local aquaponics farm, which put his nearly pathological commitment to the principle of sustainability on an exciting new path. This ultimately resulted in his vow to grow and harvest onsite enough lettuce to serve his tens of thousands of guests per month, year-round, with only one percent of the water that’s used in conventional farming.

 Yes, Loews grows, at Arizona’s first resort-based indoor hydroponic lettuce garden.

Occupying a climate-controlled storage space that wasn’t being fully utilized, the new hydroponic garden is the last stop on the lettuce’s journey before it lands on a guest’s plate. That journey begins aquaponically at Merchant’s Garden, where the lettuce spends its newborn month being fed through its young root system by water enriched by nutrients from biofiltered tilapia waste. It’s then transported live to Loews Ventana Canyon, 7000 N. Resort Drive, in floating containers, with its roots still submersed in the nutrient-rich water, for a subsequent cycle of hydroponic growing prior to harvest.

“This is about making fresh food accessible, without plastic, boxes, or cardboard, that comes from a vertical garden in a reclaimed space,” said Harvey, executive chef at Loews Ventana Canyon. “A live piece of lettuce that comes from this garden is never going to be chilled to 41 degrees, because produce gets harder when you put it in a cooler, and keeping this produce out of a cooler gives it the  flavor, the smell, the color and the texture of its freshly grown nature.”

Harvey is currently growing Bibb and Red Cherokee lettuces, as well as three varieties of Romaine. His garden system’s capacity is nearly 300 heads per harvest, with multiple harvests per month, which equates to a full acre of farming if the lettuce was grown in the ground. And he tells me that he’s only using 200 gallons of water per month in a recirculating system that only loses water through evaporation and transpiration.

That’s just for starters. Harvey’s goal is to build out his indoor garden so he can grow the same amount of lettuce that a conventional four-acre farm would typically yield. But while describing his vision for the future, he remains keenly focused on the present, which he says is “taking the simplest dishes that everyone eats, like mixed greens, and creating something that tells a story to our guests.”

When the property’s construction was completed in 1985, the resort was named the “First Environmentally Conceived Resort” in the country by Architectural Digest. Today, Harvey’s program remains in sync with that spirit as he continues to pursue longer-term strategies for greening the culinary scene.

“We don’t flip a light switch here with these programs,” he said. “We show success by trust and time.”

When it’s time for you to experience real living lettuce, head to Loews to taste how Ken’s garden grows.