Farmer aims to combine aquaculture, hydroponics

18-11-2020    11:02   |    The Chronicle Herald

Drum Head is a peculiar place to launch an agricultural revolution. Even the noble black spruce struggles in the thin soil of this windswept length of coastline between Canso and Sherbrooke. It’s also an unexpected place to find a German specialist in systems automations running a grocery store. But living things have a tendency to surprise us when they find the foundational elements for growth. “At 30 I decided I was too old for war,” said Martin Theobold. The clients for the German firm with which he worked designing robotics systems and drones were military. He wanted to grow food in systems that combine aquaculture and hydroponics – producing both meat and organic vegetables in a symbiotic environment. So he told a realtor to find him an island with a stable political climate, between certain lines of latitude and far enough away from other agriculture to prevent cross contamination.

Other islands fit those bills, but Harbour Island fit his budget.

That’s how he ended up driving to Drum Head six summers ago.

“I just felt it instantly, that it fits,” said Theobold.

Drum Head is home to a few hundred souls and a small lobster fleet.

Harbour Island is in sight of the house Theobold bought and renovated on the mainland.

A bouncy hour’s drive from the closest Tim Horton’s, Drum Head is nearly as rural as you get in Nova Scotia (Meat Cove takes the cake).

It is also about as far from densely populated, regulated and modern Bremen, Germany, as Harbour Island is from an Annapolis Valley vineyard.

But the base elements Theobold sought for himself and his farm do not fit the standard calculus.

Aquaponics don’t require soil and the climate is controlled inside greenhouses.

In its most basic terms, the vegetables are fed by the fish excrement in a system that doesn’t use soil.

Theobold’s plan is to build a series of greenhouses along with rental cabins on Harbour Island that mix tourism with what will become a research centre for aquaponic organic food production. To this he hopes to add his robotics expertise to essentially make an automated, largely self-sufficient farm.

Construction was supposed to begin this year but was delayed by a near doubling in the cost of building materials that came with Covid-19.

So far the reality of his agricultural revolution has been a bit more modest – consisting of 1,100 heads of lettuce grown hydroponically this summer out front of the Drum Head Market.

That latter being an unexpected part of his new life.

He became a grocer, building the general store and take-out that he opened in February.

“It was something the community needed,” said Theobold.

“This is a working way to build relationships with the community. When you move into a community from away, it is important to look around and see what you can provide.”

Because just like with aquaponics, people have a symbiotic relationship with the communities in which they grow.

Theobold gets to become part of a tight community with a great big ocean in front of it and wide country behind.

A community with long memories and lots of stories.

So he's learned to cook fish and chips, he hosts a wing night and last week held a Christmas decoration lighting with mulled apple cider.

He gets to know and care about his neighbours.

“This reminds me of what it was probably like in some places back home decades ago,” said Theobold.

“People still work together here.”

He’s a few years behind schedule on building his dream out on the island.

But he’s happy where he stands just the same.

Photo: Martin Theobold at the Drum Head Market on Monday - Aaron Beswick

Source and Photo Courtesy of The Chronicle Herald

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