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Aquaponics

The Future of Farming is Sprouting up in Central Ohio

by Susan Post

Aquaponics-LA-2In places with long winter months like Central Ohio, it is not easy to find fresh, local produce year-round. Local residents, however, could harvest their own produce every day of the year through aquaponics.

“Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics,” says Loren Foster of The Local Gardener. This new trend in farming technology creates a balanced, closed-cycle ecosystem in which fish and plants use each other to grow.

In an aquaponic system, small fish called fingerlings are placed in an oxygenated trough of water. As the fish grow and produce waste, that water is pumped to another shallow trough in which seeds can mature to plants in a growing substrate like pebbles, pea gravel or lava rock. The plants do not require soil; rather, they get the nutrients they need from the waste-rich water, naturally filtering it back to the fish trough.

This new concept shows substantial advantages over traditional farming methods. With conventional farming, seeds are planted in the ground where they compete for nutrients. Limited crop diversity further depletes the nutrients in the soil, as does watering. Water runs through the soil and into the water plane before draining into large bodies of water like Lake Erie, causing imbalances in the ecosystem.

“Aquaponics only uses 10 percent of the water to make that same amount of produce,” Foster says.

Besides wasting less water, with an aquaponic system, “All the negatives of gardening in your backyard are non-existent,” says Eric Graham, an experienced aquaponics grower. There is no weeding, no digging in the mud, no insects, and no chemicals or pesticides. The lack of chemicals, which would otherwise destroy the delicate balance of the closed system, means farmers are left with organic and water-grown vegetables.

Not only are the vegetables guaranteed to be pesticide-free, aquaponic produce grows in half to three-quarters of the time compared to standard farming methods. The systems are designed for density and productivity.

“The reason they grow so much faster is they don’t have to fight for nutrients like a soil-based system,” Graham says. “For every gallon of water, a cubic foot of growing space can be used,” he continues.

A variety of crops can thrive in an aquaponic environment, and depending on the type of fish, one could get an entire meal straight from a single system.

Most freshwater fish are suitable for aquaponic systems, including tilapia, catfish, koi, goldfish and lake perch. Tilapia is often preferred because of their rapid growth rate.

Graham and Foster say there are three questions one should ask when choosing a fish for their system: 1. Am I going to eat it? 2. What does it eat? 3. What environment is suitable? A balanced system requires about a pound of fish per gallon of water.

Leafy greens like lettuce, kale, collard greens, bok choy and cabbage abound in aquaponic systems. Herbs such as basil, mint, sage, rosemary, lavender, parsley and cilantro grow like weeds. Harvesters can have fresh microgreens, sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, tomatoes and strawberries year-round. The only limitations on produce come from root-bearing crops like potatoes or carrots.

While the trend is catching on, there are very few aquaponic farms in Ohio. With the extensive knowledge and experience acquired from building their own systems, Foster and Graham are looking to change that.

“It’s really good for local food production,” Foster says.

The duo plan to build their own large-scale aquaponic facilities modeled after successful gardens they have already built. However, they also encourage and want to help residents build as well.

Graham says a small system only takes about $200 to build. Once it is properly set up, the system is relatively self-sustaining. Fish reproduce, continuing to supply nutrients to plants. Allowing 10 to 15 percent of the crops to go to seed provides the next batch of seeds and energy costs are low, using only the amount required for a small pump.

The duo believes aquaponics could revolutionize farming.

“In the next 30 years farming is going to change way more drastically than it ever has in the last 1,000,” Foster says.

Susan Post is a freelance writer and editor based in Columbus. She enjoys writing about her city and the people and places that make it special. Contact her at Susan.Post.75@gmail.com.

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