Is Aquaponics the Way We’ll Farm In the Future?
Aquaponics has been on my “Must Learn More About This” list for a long while. So when I found out Garden Fresh Farms in nearby Maplewood was giving free tours of their aquaponics facility, I signed right up to go. The tour was scheduled for the middle of a week day and Maplewood is a pretty long drive out of the Twin Cities, so I didn’t expect much of a crowd. Whew! I was so wrong.
All of the tour dates booked up fast and when we arrived, the back room of the building where the tour started was already bustling with people eating cookies and waiting to head inside. If you don’t know much about aquaponics, no worry. I’ll do my best to explain, albeit simply because goodness known I am no expert on this.
Essentially, plants are grown in water rather than soil. Lights do the work of the sun, and fertilizer is provided by fish in the water (tilapia and trout in this case) who generously contribute their nutrient-rich poo. In turn, the plants’ roots help filter the water for the fish.
Aquaponics systems vary, but Garden Fresh Farms, which is owned by Dave Roeser and his wife D.J., uses a re-circulating system, so there is no waste water. Lettuce, basil and other crops are grown in cylinders that rotate around a cluster of fluorescent bulbs. Each little plant plug fits into a peat-filled hole in the cylinder’s detachable panels.
The cylinders rotate nearly imperceptibly around the lights, allowing plant roots a quick dip in the water at some point in the cycle. When the fish grow large enough they are harvested like any other crop. Some are sold to local restaurants and others are given to CSA members. Dave, who hosted our tour, hopes to expand fish sales as time goes on.
There’s no pesticide, no weeding, and part of the operation is powered by solar panels on the nondescript industrial building’s roof. (I would definitely like to know more about the electricity operations like this require.) Sustainability is the goal and comparisons can be made to hydroponics, except with hydroponics there are no fish involved.
Their facility was a cool thing to see, but during this summer of heat waves, drought, floods, tornadoes, fires and who knows what else is on the way, it was impossible not to wonder whether this is how we will farm one day. Dave made my buzzkill worse when he suggested that this type of system just might be the future or urban farming.
Honestly, I know there are lots of good things about aquaponic and hydroponic systems that can run indoors all year round. But the idea that we may one day turn to growing plant indoors away from the sun and soil, safe from the elements that threaten to destroy us, makes me queasy. I don’t really want to think about it. But I have to say that I’m grateful to people like Dave and D.J. for doing so.