In August of this year, I spent one of the most inspirational 4-day periods of my life taking a class on a uniquely sustainable way of growing food, known as aquaponics. As a strong believer in local solutions to global problems, I have been interested for years in ways that ordinary people to increase their self-sufficiency. Recently, while researching urban farming techniques, I stumbled across a bit of information about aquaponics and became intrigued. When I discovered that an aquaponics consultant named Max Meyers was teaching a class in Ukiah, near my hometown of San Francisco, aimed at teaching students everything from fish and plant selection to how to build and run commercial systems, I eagerly signed up. It ended up being one of the best time and money investments I’ve ever made.
Aquaponics is an efficient, closed-loop organic food system, combining the best of hydroponics (growing plants without soil) and the best of aquaculture (fish farming). There are fish living in a tank, where they eat and produce waste. Bacteria that naturally thrive in any aquatic system convert the fish waste into valuable plant nutrients. The water, filled with these nutrients, is pumped through some kind of growing medium, usually gravel, clay pellets or a floating raft system, where it can wash over the roots of the plants. The plants absorb the nutrients, cleaning the water, and then the water is pumped back to the fish tanks to begin the process over again. Assuming you have the proper mix of plants and fish, the plants get all the nutrients, water and oxygen they need, making them extremely happy. Happy plants grow quickly, they grow large, and they provide lots of healthy nutrition for the people who eat them. In fact he produce that comes from aquaponics systems is so luscious and healthy that it looks like it’s been airbrushed, or artificially enhanced. They are really quite amazing to see.
Aquaponics is still a relatively new field, and its potential is just beginning to be grasped. Although a lot of research needs to be conducted to really maximize its potential in various parts of the world, the early indicators are incredibly promising. There are a small number of successful, commercial systems in operation throughout the world, including several in the US, as well as thousands of personal and demonstration systems in backyards, basements and schools everywhere.
What’s so promising you might ask. Look at these facts:
• Despite being aquatic in nature, aquaponics uses 90%-98% less overall water than traditional agriculture
• Aquaponics uses 25% of the energy of comparable yield agricultural systems
• Aquaponics does not require healthy soil. In fact you can put an aquaponics system on a cement pad, in a gravel pit, on a rooftop, on a balcony; anywhere there is space
• Aquaponics by its nature is 100% organic
• Aquaponics systems can be built using low tech, local materials
• Aquaponics systems require much less maintenance and care that traditional farming
These compelling facts are what brought me, along with about 50 other attendees, to Max’s class. My fellow students were a fascinating mix of interested hobbyists, permaculturists, urban farmers, engineers and the aquaculturists. Most of them were dedicated professionals, planning on integrating aquaponics into their daily businesses, and this caliber of student really elevated the conversation during the class sessions; almost everyone was looking for practical real world solutions that would improve their businesses and their bottom lines.
Our professor, Max Meyers, is a long term permaculture junky who discovered aquaponics in 2006 and has since developed one of the few aquaponics consulting businesses in the world. Max has clients in several different countries, as well as several systems operating in here in the US. He even brought a small, portable system into class to use as a demonstration model. Max’s energy is infectious, and I think it’s safe to say that everyone left at the end of the week with a more positive and proactive vision of what the future can be. It was an incredibly stimulating course for me and I certainly left with some dreams of my own.
For me personally, aquaponics represents a path to sustainability and self-sufficiency. At the Academy its reach could be much larger, as it’s potentially a way to teach and empower others about natural systems and organic food production. As well as beginning work on my small home system, I’m putting together a proposal to build a demonstration aquaponics exhibit here at the museum. If I can build the proper support and find the funding, hopefully we can use this cutting-edge approach to really empower others to be more sustainable, and to plan for a better future. I’m inspired!