UPDATE (25 July 2016): Having adopted a plant-based lifestyle since this article was published, I hold true to a cruelty-free lifestyle. However, if one is to raise and harvest an animal for consumption, an aquaponic farm system is the most sustainable and ecologically-responsible way to do so. This growing operation’s commitment to environmental stewardship is highly-commendable. Without further ado…
“I’m glad to be involved in something so unique and different—in what might be the leading edge of modern agriculture. You could grow on a rooftop of a skyscraper if you wanted to, in the middle of a city. And you can’t say the same if you’re plowing the ground,” Brad explained as we wandered slowly through the greenhouse at Lucky Clays Fresh, a North Carolina aquaponics farm. Brad, a farmer at LCF, led me past the fish-rearing tanks, prawn tanks, and grow beds where he and two farmhands raise tilapia, prawn, and variety of organic produce.
A combination of aquaculture (rearing aquatic animals in tanks) and hydroponics (growing plants in water), aquaponics is a compromise between optimal fish raising and plant cultivation. It emphasizes sustainability by striving for zero-waste food production and has the potential to yield a year-round product at a faster rate and more consistent yield than traditional farming methods, which are weather-, soil-, and climate-dependent. In light of modern agricultural practices, aquaponics is a relatively novel approach to food production. Historians speculate, however, that this agricultural method is rooted in ancient civilization.
Aquaponics fosters a symbiotic environment between aquatic animals and plants in a self-sustaining cycle. The process starts in the fish-rearing tanks, where the fish excrete ammonia as a byproduct of metabolism. Nitrogen-fixating bacteria have been added to the water, whose job is to convert the ammonia to nitrates and nitrites. Not only does this detoxify the water so that the fish continue to thrive, but it also transforms the toxic waste into nutrients (nitrates and nitrites). The water, now detoxified and nutrient-rich, flows into the plant beds where plants take in the nitrates and nitrites for nourishment. As the water passes through the plant beds, the nutrient uptake by the plants purifies that water so that it’s ready to be circulated back to the fish rearing tanks, where the process starts again.
There are many health and environmental benefits to aquaponics farming versus traditional farming. Since the use of any chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides will kill aquatic animals, the consumer is guaranteed with produce is organically-grown. Aquaponics farms are able to grow more per square foot, and the plants grow faster than when using traditional methods. Aquaponics uses less water and can grow year-round. It isn’t subject to drought or floods, nor dependent on soil conditions. By cultivating plants in an indoor, aquatic environment, the Earth’s soil isn’t depleted of its nutrients and the integrity of local habitats can be promoted (see more information at http://www.volcanoveggies.com/benefits-of-aquaponics/).
Because of the commitment to sustainability by Judy Carpenter, the owner of Lucky Clays Farm, the LCF aquaponics greenhouse is as close to zero-waste as possible. A single pump services the entire greenhouse, pushing 25,000 gallons of water through an auto-cycle that floods and drains the plant beds continuously, 24/7. With 99.9% of the water recycled back into the system, a minute amount of water is wasted. The food is organically grown, and organic pest-control management is also employed— fertilizers and pesticides cannot be found at LCF. Compost worms in the drainage beds convert solid organic matter to be collected in a separate tank, which will be used as a natural fertilizer for the outdoor garden.
This commitment to sustainability extends beyond the farming practices at Lucky Clays Fresh to other features of the property through their renewable energy model, including solar panels and a wind turbine that turns constantly. All of the machine shop work, including welding and farm maintenance, is done on sight, and Judy supports local at each opportunity. The floors of the Lucky Clays Farm Conference Center are made of repurposed wood from a sawing mill in the mountains of Virginia, and the brick used to construct the walls came from the foundation of the same mill.
Lucky Clays Fresh sells the majority of their product to local, sustainably-focused restaurants. “When we started, we didn’t know many people in the restaurant industry,” Brad told me. “It’s like one of those good ol’ boys clubs— you’ve gotta get in. But once you break in, you’re in.” During a mere handful of years the word has spread rapidly about LCF’s product, and their phones ring constantly. In efforts to avoid mass production, the orders they fulfill are small but involve a hefty amount of labor. In addition to growing staples such as romaine lettuce, bell peppers, and cilantro, much of what LCF supplies is grown upon the request of local chefs. In the greenhouse and gardens, they cultivate edible flowers such as nasturtium alongside heirloom plant varieties— including romanesco broccoli, amaranth, Queen Anne’s melons, watermelon gherkin cucumbers, and lemon squash.
As the team at Lucky Clays Farm looks toward the future, they constantly anticipate ways to meet the needs of the local community. Though they are currently at production capacity, future expansions may allow increased capacity in order to supply product to farmers markets and yet more restaurants. The greenhouse will expand to be eight times its current size, and another new facility will house a nursery to raise hybrid striped bass instead of tilapia. To meet the needs of the local culinary community, LCF is building a tomato facility to grow heirloom varieties such as black cherry tomatoes, black krim, and blue seed tomatoes. To supply bakeries with product for dessert and wedding cake decoration, the team plans to produce a wider variety of edible flowers. The hops yard will soon yield hops to supply to local breweries, and a small vineyard with vines in their second year of growth is expected to yield healthy root stalks this year.
As for the future of agriculture, aquaponics has the potential to change worldwide food production and distribution because of its high food yield and independence from environmental conditions. Recognizing that aquaponics is a viable solution to food deserts in the United States and around the world, Lucky Clays Fresh aims to inspire youth interest in agriculture. Current community partnerships include those with a local high school to start an aquaponics internship, with Queen’s College in Charlotte and North Carolina State in Raleigh, and with a church group in a nearby county that has a grant to promote food access for needy families.
Before such strides are met, significant development of aquaponics as a commercial entity will need to take place. Aside from Lucky Clays Fresh, the quantity of commercial aquaponics farms in the United States is small. One substantial barrier to starting an aquaponics farm is that the startup cost is much higher than that with a traditional farm. However, once initial investments are made, the self-sustenance and -maintenance of the method can result in long-term financial savings.
One project for the future will be the formation of a commercial aquaponics association. Many enthusiastic individuals have started to practice small-scale aquaponics at home. While the enthusiasm is promising, much of the advice and information provided by hobbyists on the internet can be faulty, since small-scale production is vastly different from large-scale commercial aquaponics. In order that this doesn’t lead to problems for the field, Brad of Lucky Clays Fresh is currently working with aquatics suppliers and the staff at Urban Organics in St. Paul, MN to create a commercial aquaponics association which will promote the field as not just a hobby, but a commercial entity.
Another future endeavor will be the establishment of laws and regulations pertaining specifically to aquaponics. While the staff at Lucky Clays Fresh uses scientific principle in their daily activities, recording measurements in log books to improve the science of aquaponics, many hobby aquaponics farmers employ a more liberal approach to the practice. This leads to wide variations in the methods employed by the field. By establishing legal parameters for the practice of aquaponics, it will be taken more seriously as a professional entity and have the opportunity to make a notable impact on the field of agriculture.
Once such professional developments are made, it may not be long before we see aquaponics farms on the rooftops of skyscrapers in major cities across the world. In the meantime, it’s invigorating to note the increasing interest in and support for farmers who are cultivating a sustainable product that the consumer can trust. As access to healthy, clean, and sustainably-sourced food continues to be a barrier for many communities living in food deserts, alternative methods of food production will gain increasing importance. As Brad stated, in light of modern methods of food production, “Aquaponics will be increasingly important—so that everyone can eat good food, right?”
For more information, visit:
Lucky Clays Fresh: http://www.luckyclaysfresh.com
Lucky Clays Farm: http://luckyclaysfarm.com
Urban Organics (St. Paul, MN): http://urbanorganics.com
Green Acre Aquaponics (Brooksville, FL): http://www.greenacreaquaponics.com/why-aquaponics/