When a brewery and distillery in upstate New York makes a batch of rye whiskey, the leftover grain and water now serve a new purpose: feeding fish at an on-site fish farm.
Similar facilities often pay waste haulers to pick up the byproducts of brewing and distilling. Five & 20 Craft Spirits and Brewing, located on farmland near Westfield, New York, used to spread the grain and water on fields in the summertime as fertilizer. But by partnering with a fish farming startup, TimberFish Technologies, it’s able to make money from what might otherwise be considered waste. While the precise savings are difficult to estimate, the facility could save roughly $20,000 to $30,000 over the next five years while making an additional profit on a share of the fish.
“What’s a cost item for them to get rid of, we look at . . . as a valuable resource,” says Jere Northrop, managing member at TimberFish Technologies. “The whole notion is to use that instead of paying to dispose of it.”
At Five & 20’s farm, a 70-foot long tank is divided into zones filled with water and sustainably harvested wood chips mixed with the spent grain. As water from the brewing process flows through the tank, nutrients that it contains–like nitrogen and phosphorus–feed microbes that grow on the wood chips and grain, cleaning the water. Small invertebrates, like worms and snails, feed on those microbes. Fish eat the invertebrates, and fish poop provides more nutrients for the microbes, in a cyclical process.
The tank, TimberFish’s first commercial pilot, was stocked with 300 fish in early September; over the course of a year, it should be able to produce 20,000 to 25,000 pounds of fish. A full-scale commercial facility, which would distribute tanks over five acres of land, could produce 2 to 3 million pounds of seafood a year.
TimberFish sees the system, which it hopes to eventually deploy at sites around the world using a combination of byproducts and sustainably-harvested wood, as a way to help meet the food needs of a growing global population. “The amount of agriculturally viable land in the world is pretty close to being used at maximum,” says Northrup. “So if we can take land that is not currently being used for agricultural purposes and grow high-quality food–contaminant-free, locally produced, environmentally compatible, no-waste products–this expands the food chain for people and provides an insurance policy for the future.”
The fish farms can also use other types of plant waste as feed, as long as it’s clean. (The wood chips, which can be taken from dead wood or small cuttings in a forest, provide a new source of income for woodland owners and are meant to incentive planting more forests). They can also produce a range of fish and seafood; the pilot farm is currently stocked with yellow perch, channel catfish, and largemouth bass, but will later add more species. Farms near the coast, with access to saltwater, will be able to raise species that live in the ocean.
Seafood in the U.S. typically travels thousands of miles to reach consumers, but the new farms could provide local food (and local jobs). Five & 20, which also uses local grains in its distillery and brewery, plans to serve visitors freshly-caught fish along with its whiskey and beer. The fish will also be sold directly to consumers, and to other local restaurants and markets.
The brewery now has an equity stake in TimberFish, and sees the farms as a solution for others in the industry, particularly larger facilities that currently spend significant amounts to manage waste.
“In the distilled products business, we joke: ‘What do we make? We make a lot of byproduct,'” says Mario Mazza, general manager and enologist at Five & 20 and Mazza Wines (the Mazza Family first launched with vineyards). “For every thousand gallons of spirit we produce, we probably produce another 30,000 gallons of byproduct stream. So if we can do something much more responsible with it, that’s for the good of our operations, for the good of our farm, for the good of the environment.”