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Effingham Magazine

Amber Monroe Using Aquaponics & Vertical Farming to Grow Fresh Food

Amber Monroe

Using Aquaponics & Vertical Farming to Grow Fresh Food
Story by Cindy Reid


Sometimes our dreams lead us on a journey far away from where we started. Georgia native Amber Monroe grew up in Meldrim, Effingham County, but always dreamed of traveling to distant places. Following her interest in farming, she became a student at Georgia Southern University. After graduating from the GSU Biology department she taught agriculture at South Effingham for a year before going on a spring break trip to Iceland.

She says, “I came here for a visit in 2017 and fell in love with the country. Something about it felt like home. In 2018 I moved here to work on my MSc at Hólar University in the Department of Aquaculture and Fish Biology. Most of my undergraduate courses focused on plant biology, and since I wanted a career in aquaponics, I thought it would be helpful to study fish biology.”

After receiving her master’s degree at Hólar University in 2021, Amber opened her own business called Isponica in Hólar, Iceland. The company utilized vertical farming and aquaponics to provide fresh greens to the local market. Vertical farming optimizes growing space by using total building height, not just horizontal space, to grow more crops and aquaponics uses the nutrient-rich water from fish tanks as fertilizer for the plants. By implementing these ideas, Isponica is garnering a lot of positive attention for its modern sustainable farming practices. We recently caught up with Amber to talk about her passion for Iceland and Isponica.

What were your first impressions of Iceland?

I had no idea what to think when I first visited Iceland—the landscape was so different from anywhere I had visited! On my first trip, I hiked a lot and explored nature, mostly in the southern area of the country. There was so much to see. I came on my own and I felt very safe here, too.

How is the weather- especially for someone used to a warm climate like South Georgia?

I first came to Iceland in the summer so I didn’t have an idea of how winter could be here. But, I love the cold, snow and northern lights during the winter months. When we do have winter storms, it’s nice to hunker down inside and watch movies or read. Winter has its own peacefulness here. Of course, driving here in winter storms is a totally different story! It’s best to stay at home. The summer months are great for adventuring—you never run out of daylight and areas of the country inaccessible during the winter can be visited in the summer. Most of the sheep are free to roam and migratory birds arrive for their Icelandic summer vacation.

Is language a barrier? Are you learning Icelandic?

Many people in Iceland speak English very well, so language isn’t usually a barrier. I can read the Icelandic language okay and I am still learning to speak it, so my friends often help me. I’m hard of hearing, so while I can often start a conversation in Icelandic, I tend to get a little lost when I don’t hear and miss a few words. That’s okay - I’ll just keep taking classes and practicing! Listening to Icelandic music helps, too.

Where do you live currently? Have you been able to explore the country?

I live in northern Iceland, in the municipality of Skagafjörður. I love it. In many ways it reminds me of Georgia because of the farms and the countryside. I have been around the country a few times, but there are still quite a few places left to see. My goal is to go visit the Westman Islands and explore the Westfjords more, especially the more remote areas.

How did Isponica get started?

I always thought aquaponics was fascinating and I knew I wanted to have my own aquaponic farm one day. When I was graduating in 2021, I thought it would be a good time to start the company so I could build it into my future plans. Here in Iceland, we have access to different kinds of renewable energy, such as geothermal, and this helps with aquaponics production. We’re also an island that needs to import quite a lot of its food since we aren’t currently producing enough of our own, and I thought that Ísponica could increase our local vegetable production.

Are you producing products or in the startup phase?

I’ve been producing microgreens since we started in 2021, so we were able to get up and running fairly quickly. I focused mostly on microgreens since it only takes a week or two to grow and then I can bring it to market. It’s been small-scale the last few years so I would say we are still in the startup stage and now planning to increase the production this summer. We’re in the process of setting up in a new facility which has great potential for growth and we’re planning to grow more microgreens, lettuce, herbs, edible flowers and mushrooms. At the moment we’re raising goldfish and tilapia but I’m hoping to run some Arctic char trials later this year. We aren’t harvesting fish for now and just focusing on building up the production.

Did you repurpose existing structures for Isponica ?

The original location of Ísponica was in a former barn in Hólar that used to house cows. The basement of the barn was later used as a public aquarium and this is where Ísponica was set up in 2021. It worked out perfectly because our production uses fish and many of the aquariums were still usable. On the other side of the barn is our local pub and brewery, Bjórsetur Íslands, which is where students and locals drop by for a beer on the weekends.

Have you since moved?

As of April 2024, Ísponica moved to a nearby village called Hofsós. We moved into part of a former fish factory that has been mostly empty the last few years and used a storage for RVs and cars during the winter months. I’m excited about the factory because a lot of people in the municipality have a connection to it—either they worked in it or know someone who did. It’s been fun hearing different stories from the past and I’ll be sure to include the factory’s history in Ísponica’s future.

The great thing about the new location in Hofsós is that it creates opportunities for agri-tourism, where visitors can come by for tours and sample our products. In the future, we hope to add a small café on the other side of the building. The building is by the sea and overlooks the fjord and the island called Drangey. It’s a beautiful view.

Isponica is generating a lot of interest—have people been supportive?

I’ve honestly been humbled by the support. Through every step of Ísponica’s development, there have been many people willing to jump in and provide advice and help with the setup. Living in the countryside of Iceland, everyone acknowledges the importance of keeping things going and we try our best to support local businesses. There are also a lot of opportunities for people trying to start a business here, whether it’s training programs and accelerators, business and innovation development offices, grants and special loans. We really try to network and promote each other so we can all succeed.

What do you miss about Georgia?

I’ve been living in Iceland for almost 6 years now and every time I come back to Georgia for a visit, I see so many things that I appreciate more and more. I miss my family and friends the most—when you are only traveling back once a year (or even less) you realize how quickly kids grow up and people age. These visits are precious to me and I try to catch up with everyone as much as I can. On a different note, we rarely have thunderstorms and lightning here in Iceland, which is something I didn’t even realize I would miss until I moved here (or the sound of happy tree frogs after a summer storm). I also really like the ice cream here, but I have to say that I miss Ronnie’s milkshakes and Leopold’s Ice Cream on the summer days!

What is your favorite thing about Iceland?

One of my favorite things about Iceland is how small it is—you’ll find that most people have some connection to each other and you are likely to meet celebrities or politicians. A few years ago, former Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir was in our local pub in Hólar. When I saw her, my mind did not at all register that it was her until much later—because why would the Prime Minister be in our village pub, in rural northern Iceland? The chances of something like this happening in the US are much less likely, but it’s completely normal here in Iceland. Luckily I had the chance to meet her again when she and other members of Parliament came to visit Ísponica in 2023, but still—it’s funny to realize you never know who you’ll bump into at the pub!

What would you say to encourage someone with a dream?

It’s important to believe in your dreams so passionately that other people around you start to believe in them as much as you do. I think it’s necessary to surround yourself with people who will encourage, push and challenge you to pursue your dreams. It’s also okay if your dream changes over time—sometimes when you start, you realize that certain things aren’t working and you adapt. Be flexible, open-minded and work hard. There are going to be days where you might feel discouraged or don’t feel like working on your goals, but staying disciplined and maintaining a routine will keep you moving forward.  ■