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Undercover Farming at Canopy Farms
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Brunswick chef taps aquaponics system for tough-to-find Asian ingredients

Chef Cara Stadler is no stranger to pushing the envelope. She pushes diners every day to sample regional Asian dishes like bánh cuốn, a Vietnamese street food of steamed rice roll with ground pork and wood ear mushrooms, and Longjing tea fried shrimp, a specialty from China’s Zhejiang province. She pushes back against practices like tipping waitstaff instead of guaranteeing them a living wage. And, she pushed an aquaponics facility into downtown Brunswick.


Under the barrel-vaulted, glass roof of the Canopy Farms facility on Pleasant Street, Stadler hopes to grow wasabi. She uses it across the menus of her three restaurants: Tao Yuan (in Brunswick), BaoBao Dumpling House (in Portland), and the wine and tapas bar Lio (also in Portland).


Successfully growing wasabi is “a pipe dream, maybe. It likes to grow in rocky soil along riverbanks. But having our own would be magical,” says Stadler. As a chef, there are many Asian produce items she would like to cultivate inside the closed-loop aquaponics system. But it is her Canopy Farms partner, experienced farmer, and lifelong friend Kate Holcomb who must make them grow.


In total, the system requires about 50,000 gallons of water to operate. There are two four-foot-high tanks full of tilapia and rainbow trout that fertilize the water. Nutrient-rich water from those tanks is then pumped through beds of seedlings. The plants consume the nutrients in the passing water before it filters back to the fish. The greenhouse and commercial kitchen, plus the café space below, are heated and cooled year-round by solar energy.


The produce growing at Canopy Farms will be either out of the ordinary (think celtuce, Malabar spinach, or shepherd’s purse) or at least out of season (Japanese eggplant in Maine during the winter). When we visited in late April, the beds were full of watercress, pea shoots, tatsoi, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, and bird’s eye chilis.


Stadler and Holcomb don’t intend to compete with the local farmers from whom Stadler regularly buys her seasonal produce. Rather, Canopy Farms is a testing ground for what is feasible, affordable, and valuable for an aquaponics system—and for a Maine chef who is always pushing her colleagues to think harder about a sustainable restaurant.

Christine has lived in many places, including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, England and France. But her professional world has consistently been grounded in just two: in journalism and in the kitchen. Throughout her 30-year writing career, she’s covered sports, politics, business and technology. But for the past 10 years after completing culinary school, she’s focused on food. Her words and recipes about eating locally and sustainably have appeared in publications from The Portland Press Herald to Fine Cooking. Her award-winning cookbook Green Plate Special (link is: https://www.amazon.com/Green-Plate-Special-Sustainable-Delicious/dp/1944762140) was published in 2017. When she’s not laboring over a cutting board or a keyboard, she’s learning from her two semi-adult children, a community of food-minded friends, hundreds of productive Maine farmers, thousands of innovative chefs near and far, and her 30,000 honeybees.

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