Meet Kaben & Shelby Smallwood, Founders of Symbiotic Aquaponic and Native Business Top 50 Entrepreneurs

The “Native Business Top 50 Entrepreneurs” list serves to elevate awareness of the innovation, professionalism, competence and tenacity demonstrated by Native entrepreneurs across Indian Country. Native Business is rolling out profiles of these 50 Native entrepreneurs online, in no particular hierarchy, to document and memorialize their innovation and self-determination. The inaugural class of the Native Business Top 50 Entrepreneurs recognizes leaders across 13 business sectors, demonstrating the diversity of industries where Natives are making an impact. The entrepreneurs who helm the Agriculture & Hemp sector are Choctaw brothers Kaben and Shelby Smallwood, Founders of Symbiotic Aquaponic. 

Take one noble dream to feed everyone in Indian Country, add two entrepreneurial brothers from the Choctaw Nation, throw in emulsified fish water to fuel a proprietary farming system, blend with years of hard work and perseverance, and what do you get?

Symbiotic Aquaponic, a pioneering company created by Kaben and Shelby Smallwood that designs and builds customized backyard and commercial aquaponic farming systems for any individual, Tribe, community, school or business interested in growing USDA-certified organic food in a way that reduces the water use of traditional farming by up to 99 percent.

If you are unfamiliar with aquaponic farming, you are not alone. Although the agricultural system of growing fish and plants together in recirculated water dates way back to Aztecan and Far Eastern cultures, the business side of aquaponics is a whole new frontier.

Although the agricultural system of growing fish and plants together in recirculated water dates way back to Aztecan and Far Eastern cultures, the business side of aquaponics is a whole new frontier. Click To Tweet

And going where not many farmers have gone before, the Smallwood brothers launched Symbiotic Aquaponic in 2012 with little more than a dream and a wealth of support from co-owners Regina Cook, Trevor Harkreader and their parents. With a $4,000 investment from the Choctaw Nation to test the waters, they built their first aquaponic system in a greenhouse at Kiowa Public Schools in Oklahoma.

“We sourced components from hardware stores and salvaged tractor supplies to build this proof of concept that would grow food,” recalls 34-year-old Kaben, an economist by trade sounding a little like Dr. Frankenstein. “It was a labor of love. We worked without pay and without any guarantee of success.”

But it was a success. So much so that in 2013, the brothers earned a $40,000 Yoshiyama Young Entrepreneur Award from the Hitachi Foundation, which Kaben describes as “a very defining moment.”

They immediately put that money to good work. “Shelby, an expert designer and engineer, created a new, proprietary, patent-pending aquaponic system, and we became original equipment manufacturers,” says Kaben, proudly adding that all their equipment is manufactured in the United States, except for PVC components. “Now we have a fully developed supply chain to design and engineer scalable, modular aquaponics systems to fit almost any crop, topography, geography or location.” 

Business Has Snowballed. 

Symbiotic Aquaponic has designed and built nearly 100 aquaponic farming systems in seven states ― from small, 20-square-feet beds for $1,200 to their largest commercial project to date that cost $199,000.

As the website states, clients include “hobbyists, gardeners, survivalists, environmentalists, educators, schools, nonprofit organizations, colleges, Future Farmers of America, 4-H organizations … commercial farmers and community groups.”

The farming pioneers have also partnered with several federally recognized Tribes, including the Seminole, Choctaw and Cherokee Nations of Oklahoma, the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Tribes, and the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma.

Two years ago, they landed a $199,000 rural business development grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to build a 30 foot x 96 foot commercial greenhouse and aquaponic facility with 4,500 gallons of water for the Seminole Nation to help spur economic growth for the Tribe. Construction is currently underway. 

Kaben considers this partnership one of their greatest successes. “Seeing this project with the Seminole Nation come to fruition is one of the most rewarding professional experiences I have had.” It is a full-circle moment, he says. “It’s incredible to use our aquaponic technology like we intended from the start to benefit other Tribes and underserved populations in our own backyard.”

USDA-Certified Organic 

Those three words make Kaben’s heart sing. “We were one of the first companies to get our aquaponic systems certified as USDA-organic after the National Organic Standards Board ruled that aquaponics and hydroponics could be deemed organic if they met minimum requirements.”

The brothers believe they have completely disrupted the organic marketplace, thanks to the proprietary process that creates their grow media ― pH-neutral shale baked in a kiln at an extremely high temperature ― that immediately meets requirements for organic growing. 

“We design and engineer systems that can achieve organic certification almost overnight, something we call ‘Express Organic.’” Kaben says most organic farmers must wait three years for their soil quality to meet organic standards. “Express Organic” service allows clients to rapidly scale their organic growing operations and speed-up profit-making.

In addition to designing and engineering USDA-certified organic systems for clients, Shelby and Kaben operate their own systems to raise organic herbs, tilapia, leafy greens and starter gardens, which they give away free to the community.

“We want to stay true to our mission of food production and food sovereignty by giving people access to fresh food in the rural areas we serve,” says Kaben.

High Profits From CBD

Last year, growing industrial hemp and cannabis became legal in Oklahoma. Unlike other states, Oklahoma did not limit the number of cultivators. True to their entrepreneurial nature, the Smallwoods saw an opportunity and pounced.

“We’ve applied the same aquaponic technology to grow USDA-certified organic herbs to grow USDA-certified organic CBD to capitalize on new market opportunities,” as Kaben describes their recent, most profitable venture into growing CBD, or cannabidiol, a compound in the cannabis plant that studies show helps treat pain, inflammation, anxiety and other ailments without getting users high. “We’re still serving our social mission because we grow the purest form of medicine that can be grown in a certified organic system.”

How profitable is CBD? “We went from growing USDA-certified organic herbs, like mint and basil, at an average $10/pound, to growing organic CBD at $300/pound. And the yields aren’t much different,” Kaben sums up the profit bonanza. “It gives us new revenue streams rather than relying solely on selling aquaponic systems.”

The brothers want others to profit from growing CBD, too, so they teach hands-on farming classes. “We’re excited about leading the way for indoor organic CBD production, as well as educating other growers on how to profit on their own.”  

Rooted in Education 

Education goes hand-in-hand with aquaponic farming. To that end, the Choctaw entrepreneurs have been teaching one-day certificate courses at nearby Oklahoma colleges for the last six years. “We get a cross-section of students ― from a 16-year-old high schooler to a 60-year-old retiree looking for a second career,” states Kaben.

What’s more, the brothers have helped develop agricultural curriculum that meets state standards for K-12 schools, community colleges, four-year universities and undergraduate research programs. “Our college research partners extend from UC-Davis on the West Coast to Redlands Community College in Oklahoma to Delaware Valley University in Pennsylvania,” says Kaben.

Their most enduring education partnership has been with Eastern Oklahoma State College, which houses two commercial aquaponic greenhouse systems where students grow an assortment of crops, such as lettuce, basil, tomatoes, decorative flowers and koi. And through another $199,000 USDA grant, the brothers helped create the school’s Aquaponics Incubation Program that trains students to be aquaponic farmers and entrepreneurs. 

The Best Is Yet to Come

The Smallwood brothers are proud of what they have built in the last seven years. “We have learned a lot through our successes and failures, and we have leveraged that experience into a durable, high-quality product,” says Kaben, adding jokingly, “I tell my brother all the time that we have designed the light bulb that won’t burn out.”

But they will never forget about the people who helped them get there ― their mother, father and grandfather, on whose farm in Talihina, Oklahoma, they spent their childhood and first fell in love with the bounty of Mother Earth. Sadly, they lost both their grandparents five years ago. But Kaben says his grandfather’s business influence left an indelible mark on him.

As for the future, “We are trying to set smart goals. We are figuring out the best way to take that next step, in terms of organizational structure, raising capital and doing things to legitimize our brand on a national, and maybe international level,” shares Kaben, who recently got married.

As the very wise newlywed says, “I would like to think that the best times are ahead of us.”

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