Most college graduates don't have the luxury of doing what they love, working for themselves at a company they built, immediately after earning their degree. But Trevor Kenkel, 24, is doing exactly that.
Instead of job hunting or taking on an internship, Kenkel, fresh from graduating from Bowdoin College this spring, runs the 160-acre Springworks Farm in Lisbon, Maine, which he started as a 19-year-old freshman. Though Kenkel didn't want to share how much he and Springworks are making, he and his roughly 30 employees produce 1 million heads of lettuce and 30,000 pounds of fish annually; he's secured over a million dollars in financing from investors; and he's inked distribution deals with food service companies and grocery store chains. His lettuce can already be found in one Whole Foods store in Maine and will soon be sold in others around New England.
Kenkel has spent the past five years building Springworks into a sustainable business while simultaneously earning a bachelor's degree in biology. He says the company has one primary goal: growing local, organic food year-round in an efficient and environmentally friendly way. Here's how he's making it work.
Springworks Farm uses aquaponics systems to grow six types of lettuce indoors, in large water tanks. That allows for all-year crop cycles, and uses significantly fewer resources than traditional farming: Kenkel's team says aquaponics uses 90% less water than traditional farming methods. The main expenses, per Kenkel, are heating and fish food.
The system works like this: Kenkel raises a type of fish, tilapia, in water tanks enclosed in a greenhouse. The tilapia produce waste, which fertilizes the lettuce growing in the tank. The lettuce clears the waste from the tank, ensuring that the system remains clean. "It's like one big ecosystem," Kenkel says.
How Kenkel became an aquaponic farmer and found his passion for sustainable agriculture is a wild story in itself.
As a kid growing up in Montana, Kenkel was inspired to experiment with organic aquaponic gardening to grow produce in a more environmentally friendly way after seeing the sometimes alarming impact of conventional methods on the local ecosystem, says Sierra Kenkel, his older sister and Springworks' director of sales and marketing.
When he was 14, to get the money he needed to start a garden, Kenkel got a month-long job building a fence deep in the Montana mountains.
"It was a beautiful spot to work but it was a little intimidating because there's so much wildlife. We saw bears three times while we were working," he says. Still, he earned $500—enough to buy some how-to books and start tinkering around with an aquaponics system in his parents' garage. Years later, he took what he learned and used it to start Springworks.
As he went through high school, Kenkel's homegrown operation became more sophisticated and, after a while, he moved it outside to a greenhouse. He started producing enough vegetables—lettuce, cherry tomatoes, squash, broccoli, and peppers—to feed his family and to sell to help cover the costs of operating the aquaponics system.
In addition to becoming an experimental farmer, Kenkel was also a star football player. A handful of schools offered him scholarships, and he chose Bowdoin College, a small private school roughly 2,700 miles away. Unfortunately, he didn't play a single game: A head injury stopped his college football career before it even started, and he ended up taking a year off from school to recuperate.
During that time, he focused on building Springworks. Two weeks into his first semester at Bowdoin in the fall of 2014, the young company, then with two employees, broke ground on its first greenhouse. By the spring semester, the farm was fully operational, growing food that it sold at a roadside stand.
To expand the business, Kenkel found a group of angel investors who, in 2017, injected $1.6 million in capital into Springworks. That financed the company's second greenhouse, a 12,000 square-foot facility that quadrupled production.
To convince investors to give a college student $1.6 million to expand a small farm, Kenkel says he made a pitch that focused on the importance of local, sustainably grown food. While most lettuce sold in the U.S. is grown in California and parts of Arizona, Kenkel told them that Springworks "would be able to provide a local, organic source of vegetables all year."
The issue, as Kenkel sees it, is that, when produce has to travel, the process is less efficient and your salad ends up less fresh. "It results in a lower quality product. I wanted to offer the taste of something grown in your backyard to a broader audience," he says.
Springworks is already operating at a high capacity and has distribution deals on the books. Now Kenkel, the company's president, will be on-site full-time. The company faces little competition, too, as Kenkel says there aren't many farmers using aquaponics systems.
That puts Kenkel and Springworks in a prime position to scale up, think about expansion, and perfect their farming techniques. Springworks has already found a way to grow lettuce faster than traditional farmers, harvesting a head after 40 days rather than the usual 55-60 days. That gives them an advantage in the $2 billion domestic lettuce industry.
"It is looking very promising," Sierra says. "It's a science that no one has mastered in the U.S., and we're getting close."
Now that Kenkel is playing the part of farmer and business owner, and doesn't have to worry about homework, he says he looks forward to trying to build more greenhouses in other parts of the country and expanding the types of fish they raise and vegetables they grow.
Kenkel was able to take a hobby he fostered as a kid in rural Montana and turn it into a business, on the other side of the country, all before he graduated from college. He says the secret to his success is commitment. He probably wouldn't have been able to pull all of this off, he says, if he didn't care deeply about what he and Springworks were doing.
So, if Kenkel has one key piece of advice for other budding entrepreneurs, it's this: "Be passionate." Passion, he says, will keep you driven and focused, even when you need to worry about a biology midterm and harvesting a thousand heads of lettuce all in the same week.
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