We all have those moments when we’re utterly absorbed into the world around us. The chaotic mind takes a pause. The sound of waves crashing on the shore awakens us. The mountains marching in the distance somehow move us. This oneness with nature makes us feel connected to life.
Let’s imagine a world where we translate oneness into our interactions with nature. Could our food needs be produced in a way that mimics natural ecosystems yet supports growing food commercially? This sounds like a utopia of dreams since we live on a planet where food deserts exist, one in nine people suffer chronic undernourishment, and our unsustainable agriculture system has resulted in depleted soils. Food security for future Earth is in question due to poor natural resource management. Of the 11% of soil suitable for agriculture in the world, 38% has been degraded by GMO crops, pesticide use, and soil erosion. It’s not looking great for our waters either. Over 85% of the world fisheries have been pushed to their biological limit. We are now faced with producing more food in less space while regenerating soils, conserving water, and reducing carbon emissions.
Now, let’s imagine a sustainable agriculture process where plants are grown in water and aquatic organisms, typically fish, are farmed in a self-sustaining system. This is aquaponics. It’s been around for thousands of years, dating back to the Aztecs. A time when farmers learned to commune with nature instead of just consume and try to control it. We’re not inventing the wheel here, just re-learning how to use it. Aquaponic systems combine aquaculture and hydroponics system. Basically, it’s the use of water from fish farming to provide nutrients to plants growing in water. By-products of the fish are broken down by bacteria into nitrates which are needed by plants. That same water, now minus nitrogen and other toxins, is fed back to the fish.
Quatrix, an aquaponics farm in Fort Collins, CO, raises tilapia and produces a wide variety of greens. We drove down Tilapia Drive to meet with Marsha, one of the owners. Inside the 5,000 square foot greenhouse was warm and humid. My hair did not appreciate it as I strolled between rows of colorful chard, bright green lettuce, and frilly kale separated into multiple stages of growth. Basil and other herbs grow on towers toward the back where tilapia swim in large blue pools. We were here to learn the benefits of this process which just sounded too good to be true. Aquaponic farms “require an adventuresome spirit” according to Marsha. The farm started in 2008 and faced the same plight as many other aquaponic farms when trying to get USDA approvals. She elaborated that the environmental benefits of aquaponics keeps them motivated.
- Saves Water
Aquaponics uses 90% less water than traditional agriculture. Instead of having water lost into soil, the water is filtered and fed through a closed loop system. Quatrix uses a gravity fed system to move water from the fish tanks to the plants. Beneficial bacteria breaks down ammonia from fish waste into nitrates needed by the plants. Their roots then filter the water of nitrogen so it can be returned to the fish. An average of 100 gallons of water per day feeds 9000 lettuce heads and over 300 other plants.
2. No soil. No space. No problem.
Suitable soil for farming is becoming harder to find. Transforming soil for farming expends additional time and resources. With aquaponics, plants receive their nutrients, oxygen, and water without the need of soil. Therefore, food can be produced in places it otherwise wouldn’t be able to. The system at Quatrix is built on 3 feet of river rock not soil. Aquaponics is ideal for food deserts and areas with poor soil conditions.
3. Pesticide and Pathogen Free
There are, on average, 240 healthy micro-organisms in an aquaponic system that defend the plants and fish from invading pathogens. They eliminate the need for pesticides and produce food that is healthier for you. Organic pesticides aren't even used as they can be harmful to fish in an aquaponics system. Not needing soil also eliminates the risk of contamination from nearby farms that may have pesticide run-off.
5. Year-Round Harvest
Aquaponic systems yield harvests all year long with less produce loss due to weather changes. Food miles aka carbon emissions are reduced with less need to import food from other climates. Quatrix has two harvests per week throughout the year making them a favorite for farmers markets and local restaurants.
6. Zero Waste. Zero Weeding.
Nature doesn't produce waste and neither should we when producing food. Aquaponic systems utilize fish by-products for nutrient rich fertilizer resulting in zero waste. And, there’s no weeding required. No tedious bending over makes it a great option for people who appreciate fresh produce but not some of the chores associated with traditional growing methods. Aquaponics is less stress on the environment and us.
The Aztecs called it chinampas. Western culture dubbed them floating gardens. It has since evolved into aquaponics, a sustainable agriculture system. Many of the aquaponic farms I’ve discovered are non-profit or support their local community. Many offer tours and workshops to educate and inspire. The Grow Haus in Denver, CO hosts a food bank and healthy cooking classes. These businesses believe in the future of our planet and can always use volunteers and interns. Seeing the process in person gave me that feeling again. That oneness with nature. Experience it for yourself.