Mount Washington farm uses unique process to grow produce for Churchill Downs

MOUNT WASHINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) -- The heart of hospitality for Churchill Downs is located about 20 miles south of the track. It's where you'll find Executive Chef Dave Danielson in the weeks and months leading up to Derby day.

"These are like my babies so I like to watch them when they're little and grow and Tom sends me pictures all the time," said Danielson.

Rows and rows of lettuce will feed the rich and famous at Churchill Downs' Turf Club in the Mansion. But this isn't your average growing operation. Aqua-Fresh Farms uses aqauponics designed and built by farmer Tom Wantye. 

"I've been trucking for 34 years and I've been looking for something to do different as a hobby or making a profession, and I think I'm going for the profession," said Wantye.

The produce grown in the green house might end up on the plates of people watching ponies, but it all starts with fish. Thousands of tilapia are swimming around at Aqua-Fresh Farms.

"I have fish in tanks that swim around in there. The water gets pumped through something called a bio filter, and as it goes through this filter it increases the nutrient. The nutrient then goes through these tubes and flows out," said Wantye.

The end result is picture perfect lettuce that can be harvested in half the time. "It takes eight weeks to grow in a garden and in here it takes four weeks," said Wantye.

That caught the attention of Chef Danielson last year, just 62 days before Derby.

"It's really kind of an amazing undertaking that we have going on here," the chef said.

One of the biggest challenges Chef Danielson faces is getting local, fresh food to Derby guests when snow could be falling just weeks before.

"Something like this was never really an option, so it was coming from the coasts, coming from different climates," said Danielson.

This seems to be the answer to his prayers.

"This will come out of the tubes. This will be packed for us, and it will come up a day or so before Derby. So all of our guests at Oaks and Derby are literally eating lettuce that's from the farm to the buffets at Churchill 24, 48 hours after leaving the farm," he said.

Now on their second Derby together, their partnership has blossomed. This year the pair expects to harvest 7,000 heads of lettuce, and the two hope to get even more creative next year.

"He comes up with ideas of things to grow and I say yay or nay and 99 percent of the things he comes up with, I grow it," said Wantye.

If you're not attending Derby or Oaks, you can still taste Aqua-Fresh Farms' lettuce. It's available at some local farmer's markets and will soon be available for purchase at a local grocery store.

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