2014-10-22 / Front Page

LEAVES & FISHES

Aquaponics puts Sardis couple on the map
By Elizabeth Billips

They took a leap of faith and landed in 14,000 gallons of water.

Doug and Lisa Dojan are not alone, though. They are in the company of more than 1,000 fish and 13,000 heads of lettuce.

In fact, they have created their own self-sustaining ecosystem in the huge white greenhouse they built in Sardis, Ga.

They call their aquaponics operation “Fisheads” (a combination of fish and heads of lettuce) and the mechanics are straightforward.

More than 500 tilapia and a sprinkling of koi are the engine of the lettuce producing machine. The fish live inside a 1,100-gallon tank and their waste-infused water is circulated through the Dojan’s passive-solar greenhouse in a lazy-river style system. During its 24-hour course through the greenhouse troughs and back to the tank again, each gallon of water provides nitrates to feed the lettuces that float in planters just above the surface.


Doug and Lisa Dojan Doug and Lisa Dojan Swimming inside the troughs are tiny mosquito fish that keep the root systems clean and aerated.

“We don’t add anything … no additives, no preservatives, no chemicals,” Lisa said as she inspects the roots of a thriving flat of their red summer crisp variety. “The only complaint we’ve had is the occasional green tree frog.”

While the agricultural niche seems to fit the Dojans like an old work glove, getting here was a stretch from their former lives in Mt. Pleasant, S.C.

“We had zero farming experience,” Lisa said, remembering the 60 Minutes special on aquaponics that piqued their interest around six years ago. “We joked that we could kill a plastic houseplant.”

But the next morning as Doug packed his suitcase for Birmingham where he would spend six days building apartments, the charm of a simpler lifestyle tugged at them.


Lisa Dojan feeds the tilapia and koi that fuel the lettuce production. Lisa Dojan feeds the tilapia and koi that fuel the lettuce production. “I told him ‘we could always be aquaponics farmers,’” Lisa laughed, never imagining where those words would soon take shape.

But the tug grew stronger over the next year as Lisa drove back and forth to Sardis to care for her grandmother Betty Hight, who was dying of cancer. By then, the recession had reared its head and the demands of Doug’s business were keeping him away from his wife and two girls for longer and longer periods.

They decided it was time to begin again.

“We took all our eggs and put them in one basket,” Lisa said. “Eighteen months later we moved here.”

When the Dojans saw the tract of land for sale on Betty Boulevard in Sardis it reminded them of Lisa’s late grandmother.

They closed the deal and began building their dreams with each blow of the hammer.

By September 2013, the greenhouse was a reality and the first seeds were planted.

“It was definitely a learning process,” Lisa said, describing the trials of keeping the water in its safe 70 degree-spectrum through the February ice storm and the 100-degree heat of August. “We now know the greenhouse will survive both.”

The Dojans survived, too, and their business is growing as fast as their Romaine.

They built their customer base at farmers markets and boutique grocery stores then moved into local venues like Jenkins IGA in Sardis and the Wagon Barn just north of Waynesboro.

Two weeks ago, a dream came true when they delivered 100 pounds of lettuce to the Burke County Public School system.

“The parents wanted to know what in the world we were feeding their children,” Lisa laughed, hearing how they began making calls and mak- ing lunches after seeing “Fisheads Salad” on the school lunch menu. “But any publicity is good publicity.”

And if publicity is part of the job, Doug and Lisa hope to use Fisheads as a platform for spreading the word about responsible farming practices and good nutrition.

For starters, Doug believes the role of aquaponics could be large in solving global food production issues.

“Our single greenhouse utilizes one-twelfth of an acre of land and yet can produce what would take acres of properly cultivated organic soil,” he said. “It does this using less than two percent of the water and less than three percent of the fuel needed to grow on land.”

Lisa agrees.

“My dream is to take this to the mission field,” she said, noting the only modern necessity is a small amount of electricity for the air pump and emergency heating. “So many places are desperate to figure out how to sustain and survive … and this could work almost anywhere.”

As a former teacher, another part of Lisa’s mission is putting out the welcome mat for anyone who wants to learn. So far, it’s included students from Burke County schools and neighboring counties, as well as an upcoming visit from Georgia Southern University.

“The passion to teach children has always been in me. I have been blessed to have two amazing daughters through my husband but have always been saddened by never being able to bear children of my own,” she explained. “God has since shown me so many other ways to be part of children’s lives.”

In fact, the Dojans see the work of God in nearly every step of their six-year journey.

They look back on their life in Mt. Pleasant and smile at the notion of thinking they would be less busy here.

“Lisa and I have always been busy and that is really no different now,” Doug said. “But our focus and priorities have vastly changed and our days and weeks are now filled with more excitement and joy than ever before …. We look forward to seeing where God takes this and hope He continues to let us be a part of that.”

ROOM TO GROW

The Dojans hope to eventually construct eight more greenhouses in Sardis and hire employees to help with planting, harvesting and deliveries. “This would build a stronger tax base, which ultimately builds a stronger community,” Lisa said. They will split proceeds between community projects and national and global missions.

ONE FISH, TWO FISH

While the fish are the protein portion of the self-sustaining ecosystem, the tiny tilapia that were delivered to Fisheads nearly a year ago are becoming full-pounders. With the help of Jonah’s Seafood Market II in Sardis, the Dojans will begin periodically harvesting the big guys and replacing them with more small fry.

HEADS UP

The Dojans plant around 2,000 lettuce seedlings a week. The plants take six weeks to go from seed to harvest, and around 13,000 heads of varying maturity are growing under their greenhouse roof at any given time. Among them are more than a dozen varieties including Green Leaf (the perfect size for sandwich wraps) and their biggest seller, Summer Crisp (loved for its sweetness). Other less known varieties like Red Tip and Oak Leaf are gaining popularity for their high nutritional values. This fall, the Dojans plan to add additional greens to their line-up including spinach and kale.

AU NATUREL

If it’s not natural, you won’t find it at Fisheads. The fish are fattened on organic aquafeed and the seedlings are planted in coconut core and vermiculite. The Dojans even sprung for $85 per gallon heat-reflecting organic white paint. Since the aquaponics system acts as its own natural bio-filter and the water is never discharged, their typical weekly waste is a five-gallon bucket of roots from harvested plants, which goes into the compost pile. “This is the future of farming,” Lisa said, “learning how to produce food without chemicals.”

HUNGRY FOR MORE?

To find more photos, more information and links to news articles and videos go to Fisheads' page at Facebook.com. Contact the Dojans at fisheads.usa@gmail.com.

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