11/5/2011 10:00 AM
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant New York Correspondent
Continental Organics Poised To Expand With New $50M Facility
NEW WINDSOR, N.Y. — Farmers in upstate New York have battled both draught and rain this growing season; however, for Mike Finnegan and Tom Endres, co-founders of Continental Organics, the weather makes no impact on their harvest.
The "aquaponics" farm operates completely indoors under a carefully controlled environment.
In 2008, the duo founded Continental Organics because of the farming method's unusual growing process. Instead of growing produce in soil, it grows in water, as the name aquaponics implies.
Aquaponics involves farming fish (in this case, tilapia fish) with hydroponically growing plants. The closed-loop system begins with feeding the fish an organic diet. Once mature, the fish are sold as one of the farm's outputs.
The fish tanks' water is pumped through a filter that converts the tilapia waste's ammonia into nitrate. The manure is composted or packaged and sold as fertilizer, another output.
The nutrient-rich water, now filtered, enters the greenhouses as plant food. The plants use the nutrients to grow and clean the water, too. Once the plants have processed the water, it goes back into the fish tanks and the re-circulating aquaponic system or "RAS" is complete.
The harvest from the plants represents the farm's third output.
"It's much more productive and it actually results in far less pollution, if any pollution at all," Finnegan said. "It's truly sustainable. We use 90 percent less water than conventional farming methods."
All of Continental's products — fish, fertilizer and produce — are organic and free of pesticide, growth hormone and genetically modified organisms.
In climates such as the Northeast, aquaponic systems can extend the growing season.
"Because it's year-round, indoor farming, we're about 11 times more productive on a per-acre basis," Finnegan said.
Finnegan and Endres chose tilapia since the freshwater fish grows quickly, tolerates changes in water temperature and high density, and is omnivorous.
The farm grows lettuces (bibb, Boston, iceberg); tomatoes (plum, cherry and heirloom); cucumbers; basil; bok choy, Swiss chard, watercress and other specialty greens.
The third output, organic fertilizer, contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium from the fish waste.
Finnegan's background includes practicing environmental law, serving as chief counsel to the governor of New York, and managing investment banking at J.P. Morgan in Manhattan, where he headed the Environmental Finance group.
He later took a commission in the Army JAG Corps, graduating from the Basic Officers Leadership Course at age 53.
Also a military man, Endres served as an active duty Army pilot for 27 years. After several assignments, he returned to West Point as the director of facilities. After retiring from that position, he took a position as COO of an AMEX listed alternative energy company and later managed a $1 billion construction project in Manhattan.
Finnegan and Endres completed Cornell University's "Recirculating Aquaculture Systems" course.
General anager of Continental Organics Kevin Ferry has 20 years' experience in indoor aquaponics, most recently at Cabbage Hill Farm in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.
More than $6 million in Empire State Development Corp. incentives will help Endres and Finnigan open their new, 900,000-square-foot facility. The groundbreaking ceremony was held Sept. 20. The $50 million project should take five years to complete.
Finnegan and Endres founded Continental Organics as a service-disabled Veteran Owned Small Business.
"We're both veterans and we believe veterans should be given every opportunity possible to participate in the American dream and have a job," Finnegan said.
They hope to hire veterans or disabled veterans as at least half of the 120 employees they will need.
"In the short term we want to be the largest indoor aquaponics company in the Northeast," Finnegan said. "Long term, we want to be largest in North America."
He anticipates it should take three years for the first goal and five to seven for the second.