Aquaponics to the Rescue: Veggies, Water, Fish and Worms
by Genevieve Roberts, NEW YORK TIMES, September 27,2010
In the Lowlands of Scotland, an old fire station donated to the community of Moffat for a symbolic penny has been converted into what may be the farm of the future. Forget about fields. Forget even about established norms of industrial agriculture. Using a new technology known as aquaponics, the Moffat farm, due to start production at the end of this month, will churn out fish and vegetables by the ton, in a space equivalent to a small factory.
Aquaponics — a combination of aquaculture, or fish cultivation, and hydroponics, or water-based planting — utilizes a symbiotic relationship between fish and plants. Fish waste provides nutrients for the plants, which in turn filter the water in which the fish live. Cuttings from plant are composted to create food for worms, which provide food for the fish, completing the cycle.
“Aquaponics is a method of delivering multiple crops with minimum input, through a closed-loop method of farming,” said Charlie Price, founder of Aquaponics UK, the nonprofit organization that runs the farm.
A kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of fish food, produces at least 50 kilograms of vegetables and 0.8 kilogram of fish, he said. “As the ecosystem becomes self-sustainable, the fish food comes from the worms, so the entire cycle is free.”
Mr. Price’s organization is working internationally with food production projects in India, Afghanistan and several African countries, including Uganda, Kenya and Namibia. But it also works closer to home. Its next project is a city farm shop in London at which people will be able to pick their own salads and choose fish for their supper from giant tanks.
The store, called Farm:shop, in the Borough of Hackney, was created by Something & Son, a design company, working with the local council. It hopes to make direct links between the city neighborhood and the realities of farming. A location has been secured, and the project is in the late stages of acquiring funding.
The potential for urban farming is being explored in Milwaukee, where some of the leading aquaponics entrepreneurs are based. Sweet Water Organics, an urban aquaponics company, raises perch and leafy green vegetables in an old factory that housed a mining company until the 1950s. The farm, founded by James Godsil and Josh Fraundorf in January 2009, has sold thousands of fish and produces about 70 kilograms of vegetables a week. It is expanding rapidly, and plans to produce between 360 and 450 kilograms of greens a week and to grow tens of thousands of kilograms of perch in coming years.
Mr. Godsil and Mr. Fraundorf learned the techniques largely from Will Allen, an urban farmer and winner of a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, and through trial and error.
“We believe this is the world’s first effort to turn a factory into a fish and vegetable farm, and it’s a complex proposition,” Mr. Godsil said. “We’ve experimented with 40 types of lettuce, settled on three or four, and we’re now trialing spinach.”
The farm started with a $50,000 investment but has attracted about $1 million in funds over the past 20 months and partnerships with the Milwaukee School of Engineering and informally with the University of Stirling in Scotland. It is discussing the prospect of a $30 million concept for Sweetwater villages, which would have community-scale manufacturing, restaurants and cafes with food produced from aquaponics.
The farm is receiving support from the University of Wisconsin and Sea Grants, a U.S. government program, to grow yellow perch and possibly blue gill, species indigenous to the Great Lakes but in decline. “The fish it produces are a 21st century form of protein that won’t harm planet earth,” Mr. Godsil said.
Industrial aquaponics is still in its infancy, with only five facilities of more than 0.4 hectare, or one acre, operating in the world, although interest is growing, particularly in areas with water shortages. Aquaponics use between 80 and 90 per cent less water than traditional growing methods. [Read rest of story]