Farmers all over the country are using hydroponic technology to grow produce indoors, year-round, in nutrient rich water. And fish farmers around the globe have figured out how to raise their catch in tanks. Now, some operations are combining the two, raising both produce and fish.
Many so-called “aquaponics” operations use the waste from fish farming to fertilize the water used in growing hydroponic produce.
Farmer Bob Moulds, who runs an aquaponic farm in a climate-controlled 6,000-square-foot greenhouse near Cedar Falls, Iowa, calls it a “closed system.”
“We raise fish to produce nutrients for the water,” Moulds said. “Bacteria converts the waste from the fish into useable nutrients and provide the food for the plants.”
Aquaponics operations first popped up in the 1980s and they’ve grown with the rise of the local food movement in recent decades. They’re not exactly big business at the moment, but you can find aquaponics growers in just about every state.
Farmers all over the map are working to produce more crops with fewer inputs. Aquaponics is a version of that, says Mike Bevins, Iowa’s state horticulturalist.
“It’s a great example of a sustainable system,” Bevins said. “In this kind of a system animal waste isn’t considered a pollutant or a toxic material, it’s a crucial nutrient for plant growth. So it really demonstrates that symbiotic relationship between plants and animals.”
Moulds and his team at All Seasons Harvest have been fine tuning their product line for more than a year. They’ve tried everything from snow peas to strawberries to cherry tomatoes.
“We have zeroed-in on the best thing here: lettuce, herbs and kale,” Moulds said.
The produce he grows is fed with nutrient-rich water provided by several tanks of freshwater tilapia, which is the sixth-most common seafood product in the U.S. He’s developing a market for the fish, but he already sells his lettuce in local grocery stores.
“Our target is to have about 50 percent of our product sold wholesale through retailers and the other 50 percent through restaurants, catering services, retirement homes and such,” Moulds said.
Starting an aquaponics operation, though, requires a large investment in equipment – fish tanks, greenhouses, climate-control equipment and the like. Part of All Season Harvest’ s initial success has been the fact that the Moulds family has two horticulturists, an engineer and a bank account that supports the entrepreneurial spirit.
“It’s very labor intensive so it’s not something everyone is going to get into,” Bevins said. “Is it worth it? Is it going to pay off? Well that’s going to depend on whether consumers support this kind of production.”