As you may have deduced, I’ve not historically been the most proactive health guy. Understatement of the year. I would say I’ve passively benefited from the time and energy Heather has put into understanding health, food, and diet. Let’s be honest: I’m blessed to have her as my wife.
Maybe it’s because of this GAPS Diet (And FYI, I prefer to call it the GAPS Lifestyle, because I think it’s a lifestyle change – not just a diet), but I’ve decided to investigate a local community or two that focuses on sustainable living.
Field Trip #1: DFW Aquaponics Community
I drove up to Saxby’s in Farmer’s Branch. The coffee shop was closed (bummer), but there were 20 people sitting outside listening to a guy speak. Adam from Green Phoenix Farms shared some insight into various Aquaponic system setups and then opened it up for Q&A. I already knew the basic principles, but had no practical knowledge on how to build my own aquaponic system.
What is Aquaponics? It’s the joining of Hydroponics and Aquaculture. Wikipedia defines Aquaponics as “A sustainable food production system that combines a traditional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as fish, crayfish or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment.”
[info_box]In other words, you breed fish and simultaneously grow veggies or plants, and they work together. Fish waste and water flows to the plants, the plants filter the water, and the clean water is returned to the fish. Aquaponics is a major player in 21st century sustainability.[/info_box]
The first thing I learned from the DFW Aquaponics Community is that you can design an Aquaponic system to fit ANY situation. If your goal is to grow a ton of veggies but minimal fish, it’s doable. If you’d rather raise a lot of fish but have minimal work on the plant side, it’s doable.
Aquaponics is very versatile for farming. You can grow all kinds of plants, veggies, and fruits. Depending on the climate, you can grow strawberries, pineapple trees, avocado trees, papaya trees, tomatoes, lettuce, and much more. It may even be possible to grow non-vegetable plants for the purpose of homemade bio diesel.
According to Adam, Travis Hughey is a man worth learning about. Hughey developed an ingenious aquaponics system and trademarked the term “Barrel-Ponics”. It’s ideal for a third world country where supplies are few are far between. He took three 55 gallon drums, cut each one in half, and built his barrel-ponics system. Adam noted that since most of us have a Home Depot or Lowes within driving distance, we have the ability to modify the barrel-ponics system and make it even simpler.
Adam stressed the flexibility of Aquaponics over and over again. There’s no reason why you’d have to use a particular size containter for plant beds or for fish tank. In other words, you can try aquaponics on your apartment balcony with a fish tank or in your backyard or basement with a split barrel or a food grade IBC (Intermediate Bulk Container). You CAN make it work.
My First Concern
It occurred to me that veggies grown via Aquaponics might have a different nutrient density / structure than organic veggies grown the old fashioned way. Adam pointed me to Dr. James Rakocy, “Father of Aquaponics”, of University of the Virgin Islands. Though I haven’t read it yet, Dr. Rakocy has apparently addressed the issue with in-depth findings on the differences between aquaponic vegetables and simple organic. Hopefully I’ll locate this data soon and see for myself how they fare.
Out of the 20 people present, only three had operational Aquaponic systems. Most of the group were looking to launch in the near future and were gathering the necessary intel. During Q&A, one gentleman asked, “Is Aquaponics viable for commercial production?”
Adam explained that the answer is yes and no. Most commercially viable fish are salt water fish, so your system would need to be salt water in order to raise them. However, there aren’t a ton of usable saltwater plants (especially veggies), so you may not get any useful harvestable yield from the plant side. Adam has plans to experiment with a saltwater system later this year and will keep us informed.
If you DID try to go commercial with fish, there’s a ton of regulatory stuff standing in the way. The moment you sell meat, especially filleted / processed / cut meat, you have to have licenses and what not. There are currently no licenses required for selling produce (veggies, fruits, eggs), but the government is very strict on the sale of anything that could carry dangerous bacteria.
I had to run after the meeting ended, and didn’t have time to get two of my biggest questions answered:
- Are any aquaponic groups or farms getting certified organic, or is that even an option?
- What alternative materials have been used to avoid toxins leeched from pvc pipe or plastic barrels?
I’m thinking bamboo could replace PVC in a pinch. Systems may have to be simplified in order to use something natural. Also, I’m unconvinced that ANY container makes for truly safe storage. And I’m wondering why they couldn’t just dig a hole in the ground (like they do in Aquaculture) and create a pond/veggie aquaculture alternative. I’m sure it’s being done already.
At this point, I couldn’t guess why so many doing Aquaponics are using barrels and man-made containers. Lack of available land? Easier to observe and clean? No idea. Maybe it’s just a simple issue of mobility. With barrels, you can modify and rearrange your system as it grows.
Why Any of This Matters
Why on earth would anyone in their right mind waste time raising fish and growing vegetables when the farmer’s market and local co-op pickup point are just down the street? A) Because the cost of food is rising dramatically and B) because our economy and food systems are not so stable that we can rely on things remaining the same forever. The time could conceivably come when food consumption has to go local again, and we may need this knowledge to thrive as a community.
I have the opportunity to attend a workshop soon and help assemble an aquaponics system, which should be a real treat. Once I have some hands-on experience, I’ll have a better idea of my long-term interest. Stay tuned.
For now, I’m just investigating and studying. But who knows? I could see myself getting into this. What do YOU think?