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Introduction to Aquaponics

Ever heard about Aquaponics and wondered what it’s all about? You can buy aquaponic lettuce at our local Whole Foods Market, though I doubt many customers know the difference. I got my first taste of aquaponics back in 2011, and wanted to share this introduction with you in case you’re the type of person who really wants to grow your own vegetables but have limited to no available soil for planting.

If that describes your situation, then this is for you! However, if you don’t want to read an article but really want to learn more about aquaculture, scroll down to the bottom and watch the TEDx Talk by Charlie Price on how to get more out of less with aquaponics.

aquaponic lettuce

Shortly before we moved from our suburban neighborhood in North Texas to our homestead in the hills of Tennessee, I visited an Aquaponics MeetUp in Farmer’s Branch. Outside a closed coffee shop, twenty people were gathered to a guy speak about growing elaborate gardens without soil.

Adam from Green Phoenix Farms shared some insight into various Aquaponic system setups and then opened it up for Q&A. I already knew the basic principles, but had no practical knowledge on how to build my own aquaponic system.

What is Aquaponics?  It sounds like hydroponics, but Wikipedia defines Aquaponics as “A sustainable food production system that combines a traditional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as fish, crayfish or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics(cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment.”

aquaponic system illustration

In other words, you breed fish and simultaneously grow veggies or plants, and they work together. Fish waste and water flows to the plants, the plants filter the water, and the clean water is returned to the fish. Aquaponics is a major player in 21st century sustainability.

The first thing I learned from the DFW Aquaponics Community is that you can design an Aquaponic system to fit ANY situation. If your goal is to grow a ton of veggies but minimal fish, it’s doable. If you’d rather raise a lot of fish but have minimal work on the plant side, it’s doable.

Aquaponics is very versatile for farming. You can grow all kinds of plants, veggies, and fruits. Depending on the climate, you can grow strawberries, pineapple trees, avocado trees, papaya trees, tomatoes, lettuce, and much more. It may even be possible to grow non-vegetable plants for the purpose of homemade bio diesel.

BARREL-PONICS

According to Adam, Travis Hughey is a man worth learning about. Hughey developed an ingenious aquaponics system and trademarked the term “Barrel-Ponics”. It’s ideal for a third world country where supplies are few are far between. He took three 55 gallon drums, cut each one in half, and built his barrel-ponics system. Adam noted that since most of us have a Home Depot or Lowes within driving distance, we have the ability to modify the barrel-ponics system and make it even simpler.

Adam stressed the flexibility of Aquaponics over and over again. There’s no reason why you’d have to use a particular size containter for plant beds or for fish tank. In other words, you can try aquaponics on your apartment balcony with a fish tank or in your backyard or basement with a split barrel or a food grade IBC (Intermediate Bulk Container). You CAN make it work.

CONCERN #1: Nutrient Density

It occurred to me that veggies grown via Aquaponics might have a different nutrient density / structure than organic veggies grown the old fashioned way. Plants absorb their nutrients through the soil, and soil is a nutrient repository. What percentage of nutrients are lost from the lack of mineral rich soil? Adam pointed me to Dr. James Rakocy, “Father of Aquaponics”, of University of the Virgin Islands. Though I haven’t read it yet, Dr. Rakocy has apparently addressed the issue with in-depth findings on the differences between aquaponic vegetables and simple organic. Hopefully I’ll locate this data soon and see for myself how they fare.

CONCERN #2: COMMERCIAL VIABILITY

Out of the 20 people present, only three had operational Aquaponic systems. Most of the group were looking to launch in the near future and were gathering the necessary intel. During Q&A, one gentleman asked, “Is Aquaponics viable for commercial production?”

Adam explained that the answer is yes and no. Most commercially viable fish are salt water fish, so your system would need to be salt water in order to raise them. However, there aren’t a ton of usable saltwater plants (especially veggies), so you may not get any useful harvestable yield from the plant side. Adam has plans to experiment with a saltwater system later this year and will keep us informed.

If you DID try to go commercial with fish, there’s a ton of regulatory stuff standing in the way. The moment you sell meat, especially filleted / processed / cut meat, you have to have licenses and what not. There are currently no licenses required for selling produce (veggies, fruits, eggs), but the government is very strict on the sale of anything that could carry dangerous bacteria.

CONCERN #3: PVC TOXINS LEECHING INTO FOOD

What alternative materials have been used to avoid toxins leeched from PVC pipe or plastic barrels?

I’m thinking bamboo could replace PVC in a pinch. Systems may have to be simplified in order to use something natural. Also, I’m unconvinced that ANY container makes for truly safe storage. And I’m wondering why they couldn’t just dig a hole in the ground (like they do in Aquaculture) and create a pond/veggie aquaculture alternative. I’m sure it’s being done already.

At this point, I guess we’re seeing so many people using barrels and man-made containers for aquaponics due to the lack of available land. It’s also easier to observe and “clean” if you can arrange to have your systems elevated to arm’s reach. Perhaps mobility is also a factor. With barrels, you can modify and rearrange your system as it grows.

CONCERN #4: ARE AQUAPONICS ORGANIC?

Are any aquaponic groups or farms getting certified organic, or is that even an option? Anything put into the system has to be organic and non-toxic. And that’s just being organic in “spirit” rather than the “letter”. To get certified, it’s likely a complicated matter since the rules and regulations for certification assume a certain situation, namely, soil.

WHY AQUAPONICS SHOULD MATTER TO YOU

Some of you are wondering why this interesting but impractical topic is worth your time. I mean, why on earth would anyone in their right mind waste time raising fish and growing vegetables? Especially when the farmer’s market and local co-op pickup point are just down the street.

Well, a couple reasons:

A) Because the cost of food can rise dramatically based on events beyond your control

B) Because our economy and food systems are not so stable that we can rely on things remaining the same forever. The day may come when food has to be grown locally again, and this knowledge could support your community.

Not everyone is willing to consider the possibility that our economy and food supply are hanging in a precarious balance. But oil spills and pipeline leaks have shown us how easily short-term prices can escalate. It wouldn’t take all that much to make growing your own food a common sense necessity.

Investors know that it’s wise to diversify. That’s because the people who lose the biggest are the ones who put all their eggs in one basket. If PepsiCo needs to diversify with Tropicana, Frito Lay, Quaker, Lipton, and Starbucks, you can be sure it’s wise to not depend on a single job or self-made business to provide all your family’s sustenance.

Unless you own land, aquaponics is a viable option for you to grow food independently. If nothing else, it’s an added layer of security.

End of rant.

Here’s the TEDx Talk I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Enjoy!

 

*The main image is a stock image purchased from BigStockPhoto. I DID notice that the sign in the photo is misspelled, but loved the photo too much to not use it. LOL!

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