From the Fence Post News (Marty Metzger):
Colorado’s agricultural economy thrives despite characteristics that make it a less-than-perfect garden spot. Vast soils in the state are heavy clay or rocky. Though basically semi-arid, the state’s climatic conditions can wildly fluctuate from droughts to wildfires to raging floods, spring and summer hailstorms that shred field crops, and sweltering, wilting summers rivaled by long, frigid winters.
Ignoring this weather mega-drama and Colorado ag’s dependence on irrigation is a relatively new type of farming. Called aquaponics, it combines aquaculture (raising fish) with hydroponics (raising plants without soil) in a controlled, nature-friendly environment. Water is continuously and naturally cleaned, making irrigation issues irrelevant.
The totally organic, closed loop system excludes chemicals and pesticides, relying instead on beneficial insects and pest-deterring plants to combat diseases. Ladybugs and praying mantis introduced into the greenhouse will self-perpetuate.
According to a 2012 Transition Colorado Food Localization study, Colorado’s food purchases exceed $12 billion annually, yet 97 percent of the food consumed is produced out of state.
Within it exist so-called food deserts. For example, Denver’s Elyria-Swansea and Globeville neighborhoods are considered the most polluted in Colorado because of their proximity to heavy industry, an oil refinery, rail yards and a major highway. Factors including distant grocery stores accessible to low-income residents only by public transportation cause or exacerbate health challenges. Fast-food restaurants and food banks provide the only safety net.
Flourish Farms, operated by JD and Tawnya Sawyer, is a 3,250 sq. ft. aquaponics farm inside The GrowHaus, a Denver non-profit urban market, food hub and education center. Flourish donates a portion of its fish and produce to GrowHaus’s local food basket program and market that provide fresh, healthy food to Elyria-Swansea residents.
JD Sawyer confirmed that, in addition to its partnership with GrowHaus, Flourish Farms, also known as Colorado Aquaponics, sells the majority of its green produce and fish to top local downtown Denver restaurants located within five miles of the farm. Just a few hours post-harvest, the food is prepared and served, assuring freshness while maximizing flavor and nutritional value.
Every week of the year, Sawyer’s greenhouse bay at GrowHaus yields an incredible amount of food. Deep water culture beds occupying 1,200 sq. ft. of the bay produce approximately 800-1,000 heads of lettuce, kale, tatsoi, chard, mizuna, mint, basil and a wide variety of other cooking and salad greens. The bay’s 300 sq. ft. devoted to media beds grow squash, zucchini, cucumbers, eggplant, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, beans, strawberries and several varieties of tomatoes and peppers. All these are companion planted with nasturtiums, cilantro and marigolds to deter pests. Recent additions to the media beds in grow-out pots include a Meyer lemon, red bananas, kumquats and a fig tree that boasts more than a 100-year lineage.
Some experts’ gloomy predictions continue to loom about worldwide food shortages. More and more farm acreage is annually lost to development. According to J & J Aquafarms in Sanger, Calif., wild fish stocks will be depleted by 2050. Aquaponics offers one viable solution.
The University of Virgin Islands in St. Croix offers a world-renowned course of study in aquaponics and, for the past 30 years, has been conducting extensive research in its many fascinating facets. Because the island has little fresh water, and because the area has been virtually fished out, it became the perfect living laboratory for aquaponics development.
Tim Schlie of Fort Collins, is owner of Aquaponics Consulting & Enterprise Services (ACES), founded in 2010. After becoming convinced aquaponics is the future of agriculture, he abandoned pursuit of a landscape design degree in favor of aquaponics. In 2008, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts from Colorado State University. Following graduation, Schlie travelled to St. Croix for its short course in aquaponics.
Aquaponics’ symbiotic, self-contained ecosystem of plants, fish and bacteria provides a perpetual rather than seasonal harvest. Schlie outlined each component’s role in this cycle.
– Fish: Excrete ammonia through waste. Fish emulsion serves as a fertilizer base. Most freshwater fish can be used in the system, including trout, bass, koi, catfish, tilapia. Each grower should select species that will assure the best income potential in their area. Trout, for example, is a higher-priced commodity than is tilapia. Profit margins can be further heightened by growing fish and fish food right on the farm.
– Bacteria: This component is crucial. Since ammonia is toxic to fish, it must be eliminated; bacteria converts ammonia into nitrites, secondarily into nitrates, then into nitrogen. Plants desire the nitrogen.
– Plants: These clean the system by consuming nitrogen, thereby removing it from the environment. This benefits the fish. Even transpiration from plants can be pumped back into the system. Solid wastes must be removed; “bottom feeders” like catfish, tilapia and jumbo shrimp assist this process. These animals can then be sold to local food markets. Plants that can be successfully grown include most leafy types. However, growers should maximize profit by producing the most desired in their area. Schlie recommended niche products. Chervil, rosemary and thyme are possibilities. Others that thrive are ornamentals and houseplants, berries, melons, cucumbers, basil and beans.
Although units as small as an aquarium for family use are reasonably priced, set-up costs can be extremely high for systems intended for commercial growing. Schlie estimated an entire 30’ x 100’ aquaponics system, including greenhouse, costs approximately $100,000. He reminded that there is, however, zero water loss in aquaponics, whereas traditional farm fields can experience up to 90 percent. The greenhouse is completely contained and self-perpetuating. No plowing, weeding or tilling is required. These differences are key for areas with water restrictions or semi-arid to drought-plagued regions in which people desire locally-grown organic, nutritionally sound foods.
Realistically, who can make money with an aquaponics system? One, said Schlie, is Disneyworld’s Epcot Center, which maintains its own aquaponics system for their restaurant. Small farms and family producers can market their harvests year-round at farmers markets and to local restaurants, organic grocers, etc. Interest in Austin, Texas is huge,Schlie said, due to its very arid climate.
He advised that potential growers should first explore local markets. Perhaps there are no fresh herbs available in winter. Fill that niche. If someone’s ultimate goal is to raise and market aquarium fish, they should consider exotics to fetch the highest dollars. Grow crocuses; Saffron is an aromatic deep orange and fairly expensive powder derived from the flower and used to flavor foods.
Schlie said that people living “off the grid” who produce their own electricity can further self-sufficiency through aquaponics’ production of nutrient-rich, complete meals, i.e. fish, salad and strawberries.
As a relatively new farming model, plenty of room exists for development and creative advances. Aquaponics might someday offer dietary salvation for millions of people trapped in regions of water/ food shortages, or to those living in America’s arid areas or urban food deserts. Is this water-saving system one of agriculture’s biggest waves of the future?