Business Spotlight: Early Morning Harvest offers 'healthy, sustainable food'--fed by fish

At Early Morning Harvest in Panora, the produce grown in the farm’s greenhouse—a major part of the operation—is watered through an “aquaponics” system that starts in nine large tanks full of tilapia.


The distinctive system fits with the farm’s larger goal. Early Morning Harvest, a family-run business, opened its doors in 2011 and includes the aquaponics greenhouse, an outdoor garden, a mill, free0range chickens and grass-fed cows.


“We want to grow healthy, sustainable food for the community and the people around it,” owner Jeff Hafner said. “We also want to educate people as to where their food comes from.”


Much of that education comes from tours; Hafner said the farm averages about a tour a week—for families, 4-H groups, classes and college or culinary students.


Early Morning Harvest


Hafner grew up in the Panora area; his family was already growing grain and raising cattle, and the creation of Early Morning Harvest added the vegetables, mill and chickens, he said. Hafner’s parents, Earl an Ronda Hafner, his wife Shannon, and their daughters, Brenna and Regina, all work at the farm.


The farm sells tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, kale, onions, potatoes and other vegetables, in addition to eggs and grass-fed beef. Herbs are grown as well—basil, thyme, sage, oregano and rosemary.


The farm also has a mill and sells grains, although that arm of the business is a small one for now. Wheat, corn, rye and buckwheat make their way out of Early Morning Harvest.


Stringent testing is used for the grain to make sure it meets Early Morning Harvest’s organic growing standards, Hafner said. If some of the grain grown at the farm doesn’t meet those standards, the business buys and mills other organic grain that does. Hafner estimated that 90 percent of the grain Early Morning Harvest mills and sells is grown there.


A small store at the farm holds grains and various products made from farm ingredients; customers can also buy vegetables, eggs and beef there. It is open from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. on Saturdays. Orders can be picked up there, at Panorama Gardens on Thursdays and at the Panora Farmers Market on Friday nights.


Sales don’t have a size limit—sometimes restaurants or those planning parties buy produce, eggs or beef in large quantities, and sometimes individual customers purchase one or two tomatoes or a dozen eggs.


Early Moring Harvest does some business in Des Moines and Ames but is hoping to add more customers from Panora and Guthrie center.


As the owner, Hafner does a bit of everything, from weeding plants to solving problems.
It keeps my mind sharp,” he said. “There’s always a new challenge.


Growing Plants with Fish


The aquaponics system combines two concepts: aquaculture, or fish farming, and hydroponics—raising vegetables without soil.


Water and fish waste leave the fish tanks and enter a separate tank, where bacteria converts the waste, passing it through several stages before it becomes nitrate, a nutrient the plants can use. After the plants strip the nutrients from the water, effectively cleaning it, the water is returned to the fish tanks in a constant cycle.


There are nine fish tanks, ranging in size from 50 gallons to more than 1,000. They hold hundreds of tilapia. Early Morning Harvest sells the fish as well, often to people with their own aquaponics systems—or those looking to have a fish fry. The farm does not breed the fish, however.


Some herbs in the greenhouse are gown in soil, but for the most part, the plants in the greenhouse are grown in pea gravel or expanded clay. Lettuce is grown in water or “raft beds.”


“You want something that the water can flow through easily and that doesn’t wash away with the water,” said Andrew Hansen, an Early Morning Harvest employee who works in the greenhouse. “If you used soil, it would be in the pipes, but rocks aren’t going to wash away.”


The nutrients plants normally would get from the soil comes from the converted fish water instead.


Hafner said he likes the natural progression the system offers. “Aquaponics is a pretty delicate balance between the plants, bacteria and fish,” Hafner said. “Anything you do to the fish affects the plants, and anything you do to the plants affects the fish. If you look at that, it’s the same way in nature. Anything you do to plants and livestock and soil somehow will eventually affect humans.”


The farm’s philosophy makes it a perfect place to work, Hansen said. “Everyone here is working as a team together, but we all take our own projects, find our own niche and work hard at making it happen here,” he said. “We’re independently focused on making Early Morning harvest work, and we’re really proud of it.”


Courtesy of Rebecca McKinsey, Guthrie County Vedette 09/11/14

Panora Unique Business Early Morning Harvest Business Spotlight Agriculture Guthrie County Farm

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