A farming approach that creates and capitalizes on a symbiotic relationship between fish and plants is generating tons of produce and fish every year in a manner that is conserving natural resources.
Aquaponics, which combines aquaculture (raising fish or shellfish) and hydroponic systems (growing plants in water), is moving from experimental operations to commercial. Catfish, tilapia, lettuce and herbs are some of the outcomes from these efforts. Many aquaponics operations—which use no soil and require far less water and land than traditional growing efforts—are, in this country, small startups or research projects. But there are a growing number of commercial operations—in Hawaii, California, and a handful of other locations around the U.S. —and experts predict momentum will continue to build.
Aquaponics is an ancient approach to agriculture, but it was not given much credence as a potential commercial approach until recent years when escalating land prices, droughts, and growing concern about high energy usage and sustainability prompted some forward thinkers to give a deeper look to aquaponics.
In a perpetual circle, the water from the fish tanks is routed to troughs of plants suspended above the water line with their roots submerged in the water. The water, rich in fish effluent and fish feed remnants, provides—with the addition of bacteria—nutrients to the plants. Then the water, cleansed by the plants of the ammonia and other substances that the fish produce through normal metabolism, recirculates back to the fish tanks.
The potential this approach has for providing sustainable foods has been regarded as sufficiently high that Congress years ago created five regional aquaculture centers (through the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture) to support aquaculture, research, development, demonstration and education.
Among plants that have been successfully grown with aquaponic systems are spinach, basil, watercress, tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, shallots and snow peas.
The approach allows farmers to have two sources of profit—fish and plants—on an ongoing basis. And it efficiently addresses some current concerns and preferences: food security, organic produce, and creating local products that employ local workers.
Ed Cichon, American Diversified Energy’s (ADE’s) team leader with vast experience with aquaponics and startups, can envision a time in the future when there are aquaponics in most U.S. cities. He foresees “community-sized operations” that produce, for example, 2,000 or more pounds of lettuce a week—enough to supply several local restaurants, hotels and natural food stores that are devoted to the idea of fresh, locally produced food products.
Earlier such operations were almost always constructed outside. But with advances in knowledge and in technology, “indoor aquaponics is catching on,” Cichon says. And that opens a vast number of opportunities for turning no-longer-used warehouses and manufacturing plants into revenue-producing operations.