Piatt County farm dives into aquaponics for sustainability

A sea of emerald green Romaine lettuce covers trays in the Kountry Fresh Greenhouse near White Heath in Piatt County. (Photo by Mindy Romano)

Tilapia and leafy greens serve a purpose on the Koss Family Farm near White Heath. With an eye toward sustainability and the future, the traditional Piatt County farm expanded into aquaponics to raise fish and greens in a climate-controlled system.

“Dad thought a greenhouse will be the future of agriculture. A greenhouse is more economical and sustainable,” Mindy Romano said of her father, Steve Koss.

Koss and his wife, Kathy, own the farm, while Romano owns and operates Kountry Fresh, the aquaponic operation. The Kosses’ sons oversee the farm’s 2,700 acres.

Kountry Fresh’s 6,000-square-foot greenhouse and aquaponic system will produce 100,000 heads of lettuce at full production and averages 2,200 fish at any time. In addition, Romano also operates a certified kitchen where fish are processed.

Planting and harvest occur year-round at Kountry Fresh. Romano plants 300 lettuce seeds daily five days every week. The lettuce heads are moved three times before they’re harvested at 38 days, she explained. Her current varieties include Romaine, Boston Bibb, Butterhead and Summer Crisp, which is an open-headed variety like iceberg, but more nutritious. Herbs and other produce may be available during the year.

Tilapia are harvested at 9 months of age and weigh 1.5 to 2 pounds. They are sold whole on ice or in 1-pound packages of fillets.

Romano explained the aquaponics system uses 18,000 to 20,000 gallons of water that recirculates. Water moves through the fish tanks and then through a multifaceted filter system. In a final net filter, microbes break down fish-supplied nutrients into plant-available nutrients in the water.

Last March, the pandemic challenged Kountry Fresh, which was ready to deliver its first crops to off-farm markets that shut down. Romano pivoted to direct marketing.

Today, she takes orders emailed to KountryFreshOrders@gmail.com and posts product updates on Facebook. Customers may pick up their orders at the farm, 2328 Lickskillet Road, White Heath, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and Saturday mornings.

Kountry Fresh produce also is available at Holly’s Country Kitchen in Monticello and through MarketWagon.com, an online delivery service of local food.

As restrictions have eased, Romano has regained some of her commercial markets. She is delivering greens to chefs at Hendrick House, a privately owned dorm at the University of Illinois, and Kirby Foods Inc., Champaign.

Additional information is available on the Illinois Market Maker website.