Aquaponics uses less water and energy than conventional farming and grows food without pesticidesany time, anywhere.
Aquaponics is a food production system that combines aquaculture (raising fish in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. It’s a growing movement in Colorado where years of drought have made people view water differently. We visit three locations in the state using the method for the sameand very different reasons.
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Jamie: There’s an old black-and-white photograph in the lobby of Gavin Vitt’s Colorado Springs warehouse. It’s of his great grandparents who emigrated from Czechoslovakia and homesteaded in O’Neill, Nebraska. His family still farms that land and growing food is in his blood, toobut you won’t find him out on a tractor tilling the soil.
Frani: Rather you’ll find him here checking water temperatures and adjusting lights. And instead of the sound of irrigation you hear the humming of pumps and aerators. His company, Daily Harvest, does "Aquaponics" which is a fusion of "aquaculture"raising fish in a controlled environment, and "hydroponics" which is cultivating plants in water. Fish waste provides a food source for the plants and the plants filter the water for the fish to live in.
Gavin: Well come on out... If you will, just wipe your feet on the mat there.
Jamie: A tour of Daily Harvest starts in a room with over a dozen blue tanks measuring about 10’ in diameter. We wipe our feet on a disinfectant mat to ensure bio-security. We peer in the tank windows and see fish maybe 12” long swimming round and round.
Gavin: Here we’ve got tilapia, as well as a couple koi, roughly 150 in the first tank and 150 in the second tank. 250 - these are striped bass...
Frani: The choice of which fish to raise correlates to what plants he intends to grow.
Gavin: It’s kind of a balance because the high end of what the vegetables like, they like it between 65-68 degrees on the low end tolerance level for the fish. So we kind of make a compromise between what the fish really, really like and what the vegetables really like.
Jamie: We follow Gavin through a trail of PVC pipes into the adjoining room filled with rows and rows of grow beds with heads of romaine, bok choy, kale and swiss chard. Gavin lifts one of the lids to reveal a massive tangle of roots draping in the water.
Frani: When the crops are ready, they’ll be delivered to the customer within hours of being cuta contrast from the way much of our food is currently delivered.
Gavin: California provides I think 50% of the nation’s fruit, nut and vegetable produce. They have to harvest it before it's ready so that it can kind of mature on a truck somewhere. Then it comes to the local markets then it's got to sit there for another day or two before its purchased, and then it sits in your lettuce crisper or whatever, so it's already you know I would assume 10 or 7 days old.
Jamie: Many fruits and vegetables travel hundreds, if not thousands of miles to your fridge, and that means a lot of fuel and energy.
Frani: And unless they’re grown organically they’ve probably been exposed to pesticides which is another selling point for Daily Harvest. Aquaponics by design is organic. If Gavin has a pest problem, he has to use biological controls because most chemicals are toxic to fish.
Jamie: Gavin’s dad comes into the tank area. Daily Harvest is a family affair. His father feeds the fish and his mom and wife tend the plants. His father, Gary is clearly proud of his son who seemingly has left nothing to chance and no stone unturned.
Dad: It’s pretty fun, you know. We had the sheriff out proactively because these lights, you turn these lights on at night in the warehouse and they glow. We wanted the sheriff to know we were growing lettuce... as opposed to marijuana or pot.
Frani: One sheriff’s department that wouldn’t need any introduction to Aquaponics is the Denver County Jail which is about 75 miles north of the Daily Harvest facility. The Denver Sheriff’s Department launched a pilot program early in 2014.
Jamie: After going through four locked doors we’re standing in what was once a dormitory at the jail. Deputies Hazel Pablo and Jeff Bush are proudly showing us their fish tank and grow beds. It’s a modest system compared to Daily Harvest and right now only feeds the officers, but they have high hopes to expand the program.
Pablo: Well we would like the jail to become more sustainable and be able to feed our inmate population, and reducing costs of shipping food and carbon waste.
Frani: Aquaponics uses about 90% less water than conventional farming and only needs occasional water to replace what’s lost to evaporation.
Pablo: So it’s constantly water being moved around in the system and nothing is wasted. Most of the water inside the tanks are the original water that we started with last year.
Jamie: The energy and water savings are only part of the benefit. The jail sees the potential to provide inmates training.
Pablo: We give the inmates a lot of responsibility and this would give them relax time from their responsibility in the dorms and give them a different set of responsibilities. Something that they could look forward to, something that they would find educational and something that they could put on their resume.
Frani: As we stand with the officers listening to the gurgling of the water and watching the fish swim, it has a soothing, if not mesmerizing effect. People are drawn to aquaponics for a variety of reasons: the local food movement, water and energy savingsbeing able to grow food all year round without fertilizers or pesticides. For others though, the value of aquaponics in terms of food security and its social benefits is immeasurable.
Charles: You take a seeda lettuce seed and you stick it in that water and you put fish in that water and in 3-4 weeks you see that seed turn into a head of lettuce. I mean, it's no words to describe how gratifying that is.
Jamie: That’s Charles Hendrix, he’s the Founder/Director of the nonprofit Abundant Harvest Community Outreach in Fountain, Colorado. We’re standing in his 30 x 100 foot hoop-house and although it’s December and 40 degrees outside it’s hot in here.
Frani: He started his aquaponics nonprofit that provides food to the poor after the Great Recession of 2008 sunk his sports memorabilia company.
Charles: Feeling sorry for myself. The best way to get over that is to do something for somebody else.
Jamie: So he worked at the food pantry at his local church. After seeing the same people come in day after day week after week he got the idea to start an aquaponics system on land borrowed from the church with the idea to grow foodby and for the community.
Frani: Because to Charles aquaponics is more than farming food efficientlyit’s about planting seeds of opportunity. It’s about strengthening relationships and networks. It’s a teaching tool.
Charles: Talking about teaching them to fish, you’re teaching them to know how to fish and how to make the fish and everything. For us in what we do to use this concept, sustainability is gathering information, passing it on to people, giving them a choice.
Jamie: So in other words, give a man a fish and he eats for a day teach a man aquaponics and not only can feed himselfbut maybe his entire communityfor life. 💧