Sustainable Food Production Now!

Here’s what a good aquaponics system does, and why it is the most sustainable food production system in our world today:

Aquaponics produces both fish and organic vegetables, in a dynamic, natural, pond-type ecosystem, and produces two streams of income rather than just one.

Sustainability Benefit: Diversified farms with a variety of protein and vegetables are more likely to survive disease events in one species and economic difficulties in general, as compared to farms that monocrop or only have a couple of vegetable crops. Sustainability ultimately means still being in business next year.

We have never farmed before (we are completely literal here – neither of us have even had a small home garden), and now produce 2,000 pounds of vegetables and 300 pounds of fish a month from the five systems we’ve built. We’ve looked for why this is “too good to be true” and in two and a half years of operation haven’t found it. This really works.

Sustainability Benefit: Even if you have never been a farmer, you can produce lots of food with these systems. It’s like driving a car: you don’t need to know how to design engines or transmissions in order to drive one. The information available here makes it possible to build and operate aquaponics systems easily and economically. It also opens up the pool of potential farmers to include those with absolutely no farming experience, a huge benefit to both your community as well as to society in general.

Aquaponics uses two percent of the water in-ground farming does, less if there’s rain in your area.

Sustainability Benefit: You are not dependent on large amounts of water as are conventional in-ground farmers. If water is already scarce, or becomes so, you will still be farming productively long after others have been forced to quit. This benefit also opens up food production possibilities in areas where there is not sufficient water for conventional in-ground farming.

Aquaponics produces up to EIGHT times the amount of organic produce the same area of ground would, because vegetables usually grow two times faster, and at three-four times higher density, without ever depleting the nutrients, as would happen in dirt. The aquaponics farm does NOT require farmland with fertile soil, or even land with soil; aquaponics can be done just as successfully on sand, gravel, or rocky surfaces, which could never be used as conventional farmland. In fact, we’ve often mused on how nice it would be to have land that was not so fertile (we have a piece of REALLY fertile farmland for our aquaponics farm), because then we wouldn’t be fighting the darn weeds all the time!

Sustainability Benefits: First, the food producer doesn’t require as much land using this method, perhaps one-fifth to one-tenth as much for the same production level. This benefits you because larger pieces of land are more expensive, and smaller ones less so. Nobody is making new land (except Madame Pele in Hawaii), so we need to make what we have last. Second, the ability to farm using cheap unfertile land (and FAR less of it) opens up many new possibilities for the food producer. These two benefits of this technology combined could make our current land inventory last forever. Click here to see photos of how plants grow in our system.

Our aquaponics system is USDA Certified Organic (ours is the first in the world to obtain organic certification, and it cannot be cheated: if we use any chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers, our fish all die. Even most approved organic pesticides would kill our fish. The fish act as the “canary in the coal mine”, and force the aquaponics farmer to be honest.

Sustainability Benefit: Aquaponic produce is guaranteed organic: no ifs, ands, or buts about it. As consumers become educated about aquaponics they will realize aquaponics farmers can’t cheat, as organic dirt farmers may sometimes be tempted to. As prices for chemical fertilizer and fuel increase, conventionally farmed produce will increase in cost to the point where there is no economic advantage to the consumer to buy conventionally-farmed (OR ORGANIC) produce and they will switch to aquaponic because it is healthier, more sustainable, and costs the same.

This claim about aquaponic produce needs some explanation: although organic produce IS better for us to eat, farming organically on a commercial scale uses the same amount of petrochemical energy as farming conventionally with chemical fertilizers and pesticides does, AND costs more in terms of labor. This is why organic produce costs more in the market. Why? While chemical fertilizers and pesticides for use in conventional farming take a tremendous amount of petrochemical energy to make (usually in the form of natural gas), organic farming on a commercial scale uses just as much petrochemical energy (in the form of diesel fuel) to power the tractor, the diesel compost shredder and spreader and the cultivators, plows for plowing cover crops in, and the organic pesticide sprayers and so on that organic farming uses.

Unless you use draft horses, organic farming is NO MORE SUSTAINABLE than conventional farming in its use of our oil reserves! What this means is that as the cost of oil goes up, so does the cost of farming conventionally AND organically. When we run out of oil, conventional farming with chemical fertilizer AND organic farming with diesel tractors will both be things of the past. The only type of food production whose cost will not go up when oil prices rise is aquaponic food production powered by renewable energy sources. This is more completely explained in the next sustainability benefit.

Aquaponics energy usage is from 70% to 92% LESS than a conventional OR organic farm (which use fuel and/or petrochemical-intensive fertilizers). All energy used is electrical, so alternate energy systems such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric can be used to power this farm 100%. This alternate energy can be produced locally instead of needing to be shipped in from oil-refining countries, which may be great distances away from the end-user (this shipping over great distances requires still MORE petrochemical energy).

Sustainability Benefit: Don’t need oil! Sooner or later we will be forced to get over our addiction to using fossil fuels for farming; the mover here will be increasing fuel costs and associated energy costs of producing chemical fertilizers. There are no alternate-energy options to substitute for diesel tractors and equipment except draft horses, which are not feasible on the scale at which modern food production systems need to operate. Aquaponics systems can be run entirely using alternate energy, which makes them the only food production systems that don’t require direct oil and oil-derived inputs.

In aquaponics, there are no weeds, soil pests or pathogens, or soil. Thus, there is no labor required for tilling, cultivating, fertilizer spreading, compost shredding, manure spreading, plowing cover crops in, or irrigating. Seeding and a large part of harvesting labor can be done sitting in the shade in a Costco tent, or if you prefer, standing and working at waist level. The only inputs are electricity, fish food, seeds, and potting media. We experience (roughly) 8 times the production of soil-based farms in the same area; what that means is that certain labor costs, such as the costs for harvesting, replanting, and just getting workers from one part of the farm to another, are hugely reduced. If the farm only needs to be one-eighth as large, then the worker only needs to travel one-eighth as far to perform any function such as carrying a tray of seedlings to plant, carrying a basket of harvested produce to a processing building, and so on. On a large farm where the workers move about by powered vehicle, this has the possibility of hugely reducing such associated costs.

Sustainability Benefit: Labor costs for the farmer are significantly reduced. As every farmer knows, reducing ANY cost helps create the kind of sustainability we’re striving for: farming productively and profitably year after year, able to offer employment opportunities to the community and support one’s family.

For aquaculturists: Aquaponics is the only cheap way to get rid of ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate accumulations in your water by turning them into something you can sell. You might like to know that the vegetables in our aquaponic systems bring in 92% of the gross income and the fish 8%. How’s that for income from a biofilter?

Sustainability Benefit: With increasingly stringent regulations regarding environmental discharges of aquaculture effluent water and its associated costs, this could make the difference between losing and keeping an aquaculture business. Instead of needing to expensively treat water that is saturated with fish effluent (read: FREE organic fertilizer), you use it to create a new income item in your accounts: organic vegetable income. There is NO discharge to the environment from recirculating aquaponics systems.

For hydroponics growers: You can get certified organic so you can get the premium prices organic produce obtains. You don’t have to dump your nutrient solutions every three months or so, sterilize, and buy more nutrients: with aquaponics you use the same water for years and years without taking systems down or sterilizing them. You could be selling organic aquaponic vegetables, which taste GREAT, without having to bother with micronutrient addition and monitoring. You could be getting extra income from selling the fish.

Sustainability Benefit For Hydroponics: Grow the same things you grow now, but get higher prices for them, AND have extra income from the fish, with the same or fewer expenses than you now have.

There are many as-yet unexplained positive phenomena in aquaponics. For instance, the produce tastes great! Even after bolting (beginning to go to seed), the leafy greens we grow remain sweet and tasty. For those of you who are gardeners, you know that when a plant begins to bolt, it is not fit to eat as it is so bitter. We are also pleased by (although we don’t understand the reason for) the incredibly long shelf life exhibited by aquaponics produce, which approaches three to four times the normal shelf life of soil-grown organic produce! And aquaponics-grown produce, which is normally quite bitter grown in the soil, is quite sweet and flavorful.

Sustainability Benefit: Aquaponic produce lasts much longer when under refrigeration. You get usable, sweet and tasty leafy greens for a much longer growing season than if you were growing in the ground. It feels a little odd the first time you chop up a whole bok choy with the flower stalk and all for a stir-fry (because this stuff usually goes on the compost heap), but you soon get over that when you taste the result, which is like young tender asparagus. Also, we were baffled by the comments of local organic lettuce farmers who tasted our lettuce and said “that’s really sweet!”. We said “thank you”, and they said, “NO, you don’t understand, that’s REALLY SWEET!”. So, we started tasting other people’s lettuce WITHOUT dressing. Without the normal sugar sauce on it, the lettuce grown in the ground was really BITTER! We tried ours again, also without dressing, and noticed it was really SWEET!. This is something we’ve noticed about all the produce from the aquaponics systems, not just the lettuce. Okra when longer than 3-4″ or so is usually stringy and tough, but mature okra up to 10″ long from aquaponics systems is tender and juicy. Taro from these systems makes the best poi I’ve ever eaten (for Hawaiians or those Hawaiian-at-heart). Tomatoes taste like tomatoes tasted when I was six years old (just like a 90-decibel tomato explosion in your mouth), before chemical fertilizers were in widespread use.

Click here for our lettuce testimonials

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