Fishing for a New Way to Farm
Aquaponics — a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture – is becoming a world-wide phenomenon.
About 8 years ago, my wife, daughter and I made the 2500 mile trek across the United States from our East coast home that’s been in our family for almost 100 years, to the great State of Utah. Our new home was located in a rapidly growing community called Eagle Mountain. Growing up in Connecticut, we always had a family garden, green grass, fruit trees, flowers and plenty of water and birds. Our new home was in stark contrast to New England living. We now lived at over 5000 feet above sea level.
Green grass was replaced with brown clay – no spontaneously growing trees, flowers, or soft grass, and very few songbirds. The annual rainfall in Utah is 8″ per year as compared to Connecticut’s 50″ per year and we have water shares here. We actually arrived in Utah just as a 5 year drought ended.
It took us several years of relearning how to grow everything utilizing hard water and dealing with 100+ degree summers coupled with very low humidity and high altitude. Now the big killer of this garden party here is the soil. When people living in Eagle Mountain talk about the soil we have to smile because it’s mostly clay with a high mineral content. Do you know what happens when water hits clay? Well, it turns to glue. The kind of glue that pulls your shoe off when you step in it. And it doesn’t smell like dirt. Due to the high mineral content it has a unique smell. I never thought I would actually miss the smell of dirt.
The Stage is Set.
I first learned about aquaculture and hydroponics over 20-years ago. I dabbled with it from time to time, but with no serious interest. In Connecticut, growing was not an issue, and 20-yearsago, modern aquaculture and hydroponics were still in their infancy and would have beenmerely a hobby for most people there. When we relocated to our new home in the Rockies, we began to examine alternative growing methods. We wanted to grow vegetables, fruit trees, andflowers. We looked at hydroponics and the possibility of greenhouse growing. Hydroponics would overcome the issue of having poor soil and we could start planting earlier to help with ourshorter growing season. Also we have temperature drops of 10-30 degrees at night so a greenhouse could stabilize the temperature of our growing environment nicely. When looking into aquaculture and hydroponics after all these years, I was impressed with the rate of symbiotic development in the field and the extent of its evolution. These two proven scienceshave been transformed into a technology currently known as Aquaponics.
Today, this new soil-less, urban garden growing hobby is now one of the most discussed and sought after subjects.It is in the news everywhere, in magazines, local newspapers, and across the internet. Thereare new business models, products, and techniques being developed weekly. Its growth is exponential WORLDWIDE.
Aquaculture is the science of growing fish in a controlled environment; this controlled environment becomes growing tanks, netted ponds or lakes and even the ocean. The problem that arises in commercial production is that heavily controlled stocking densities are the norm, and so the problems of diseases and the use of strong antibiotics and poor filtered water systems help create less than acceptable quality fish as a food source.
Hydroponics is the science of growing vegetables in a soilless medium and using synthetic chemical nutrients to feed the plants. Hydroponics is far from being “organic”. So the birth of Aquaponics was quickly heralded as our new super hero. By definition aquaponics is a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture, utilizing the very best of both technologies.
Fish are grown in a controlled healthy environment. Their waste water is processed through vegetable produce beds. The produce is not grown in dirt but in a medium of expanded clay pellets or some other inert material. No pesticides or synthetic chemicals are used. This method gives us the ability to grow much more organically where organic soils or organic farming are not available. The vegetables assimilate the nutrients and filter the waste. The water returns, cleaned and filtered, back to the fish tank for the fish to thrive. The process uses aerobic and nitrosomonas/ sp and nitrobacter/ sp (autotrophic) bacteria found in the waste water to achieve this effect. This process creates a kind of an organic waste treatment plant, mimicking nature. Aquaponically grown vegetables and fish typically carry a 100% organic classification.
Sweeping the World
Why aren’t we using aquaponics as a growing system more you might ask? Well, you would be surprised to find out that we are. Aquaponics is truly sweeping the world right now. There are thousands of aquaponic garden systems in operation, from apartment roof tops in New York City, to large commercial greenhouse systems in Florida. There are large Airports around the world, in places like the US, China, Japan, and England that are piloting aquaponic gardens within their buildings for travelers to see and enjoy. The food is grown and harvested for use in the restaurants located on the premises. This worldwide growing phenomenon is feeding thousands and may one day help to feed millions of people.
Additional Sources of Info on Aquaponics
Several years ago, I started buying books and reading everything I could on aquaponics. I fervently watched videos, paid attention to YouTube aquaponic “guru’s”, and studied online courses. A large portion of the information out there is marketing hype, written by people that are trying to take advantage of this current frenzy. Once I realized this, I decided to offer the community what I had learned from reliable reading sources and from my combined experiences in this field.
I began teaching an Aquaponic class at several colleges here in Utah through their extension programs. The response has been tremendous, my classes being filled a month before their start dates. I’m receiving emails from people throughout Utah with DIY systems growing both fish and vegetables for their families. There are even some commercial growers with large greenhouses that are looking to convert over to an aquaponics system. There is some interest from green home builders to add greenhouses with aquaponics systems as part of a new home feature. I’m also working with several software engineer friends to develop smart phone applications so an aquaponics system can be controlled from anywhere.
Aquaponics can be a very profitable means to a sustainable agricultural business model. Where is aquaponics heading? It’s the future! We’re seeing the increase in organic products purchased by consumers not just here in the US but worldwide. People understand the relationship between organic food and good health. Aquaponics is one way to supply this need to consumers, and it can quickly become a profitable commercial farm endeavor.
Aquaponics conserves natural resources; we use 70% less water with aquaponics than soil-based systems. The water in the system is re-circulated; a plant’s take-up and evaporation are the only use of the water. Vegetable production is conservable 4-6 times more productive then soil based systems and grows between 2-3 times faster. No more weeds, composting, fertilizing, and watering. The systems can be as small or as large as needed. That’s the nice thing about aquaponics; it’s easily scalable.
There are many articles, books, videos, and chat groups on the subject of Aquaponics. Get your feet wet by starting with a small system, something easily manageable. Look for my next article in Small Farm Quarterly Fall, 2014 for a detailed overview of how to get started and suggested best practices.