Aquaponics: a cost-effective source of healthy food

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Image and story originally published in Taos News

Owning a self-sufficient home is a dream shared by many in eco-friendly Taos. And having a dependable, year-round source of food at home is an important element of it.

But the growing season is short here and traditional greenhouses can be difficult (and expensive!) to maintain. Plus they provide just vegetables and some of us may want protein as well.

The solution can be an aquaponic system.

Aquaponics: the basics

Aquaponics is an environmentally-friendly farming method—the result of combining aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil).

Basically, it is a system designed to grow fish and plants together, in an enclosed space which can be located inside the house or in a separate structure. The fish waste becomes the food source used by the plants to grow. In turn, the plants provide a natural filter for the water where the fish live.

How does the system work?

Pipes gravity-feed water from the fish tank to the grow beds, which can be filled with gravel or clay pebbles. Plants need no chemical fertilizers, since all the nutrients are constantly provided by the fish waste.

The bacteria in the fish tank convert the nitrites from the waste into nitrates, and they become the main nutrient source for the plants.

The system is mostly self sufficient, with the only requirement of adding food for the fish.

The water is constantly recycled. Just a small amount should be added occasionally, to compensate for what is lost by evaporation.

It is a closed-loop system with minimum waste, which makes it ideal for our desert environment, as well as a dependable source of protein and vegetables.

Plants and fish

Leafy plants like lettuce and herbs like cilantro and parsley grow easily and fast in the aquaponics system, but strawberries, tomatoes and cucumbers also do well.

As for the fish, tilapia is the most common, though koi, crappie, and sunfish can be used too. It is recommended to start with inexpensive ones, like goldfish. Once the system is established, edible varieties, like trout and carp, can be added.

The general plant-to-fish ratio is four plants for every pound of fish, though it may vary according to the species used.

The cost

After the initial set-up of the system, that may start around five hundred dollars, the maintenance costs are quite low, consisting in power for the pump (unless you use solar panels) and food for the fish.

An aquaponics workshop in Taos

Tawnya and JD Sawyer have been dedicated to practicing and teaching aquaponics since 2009. They operate Flourish Farm, a 3,200 square feet aquaponics farm in Denver, Colorado.

They provide aquaponic training, curriculum development, consulting services and support programs to individuals, schools, institutions and whole communities through Colorado Aquaponics.

On September 13th they brought an aquaponics workshop to Taos, sponsored by NotForgotten Outreach. It covered the basic system history, challenges and benefits, main components and designs, among other topics.

More than thirty people attended the workshop. It concluded with a “farm tour” that was held at our house.

Our experiment: from greenhouse to aquaponics

After taking a workshop early this year with Colorado Aquaponics, through NotForgotten Outreach, my husband Gary James decided to build a system inside our greenhouse, turning it into an aquaponic space.

He installed a fish tank, a media bed, which supports heavier root plants, and a deepwater culture raft system that is better suited to grow lighter plants. He also added a vertical system to grow herbs.

“Due to the cold climate here, the most challenging part is to provide a structure that can maintain a suitable growing environment during the winter,” he said. “Before installing the system, I created a double wall with rigid greenhouse plastic to provide a dead airspace in the walls and I also insulated the roof.”

Our original crop was mostly lettuce. Now we have lettuce, tomatoes and basil, which we transplanted from the garden. We plan to add strawberries and possibly some more herbs in the next few months.

Below: the process

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To find out more about Colorado Aquaponics visit http://www.coloradoaquaponics.com.

 

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