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New York Time on Aquaponics

February 19, 2010

Friends, to say it has been quite a week would be like saying Shawn White is a good snowboarder…

First, there was the feature article in the food section of the local paper on Wednesday. Perhaps some of you have experienced the surreal nature of having your face splashed on the front page of a section of your local paper, but I hadn’t. It’s fun and exhilarating, but it throws you off balance at the same time… especially knowing that an article in the NY Times was going to hit the next day. Friends would say “wow, that’s wonderful” and my response would be “thanks (but just wait until tomorrow….)”. Hopefully that didn’t sound ungrateful or arrogant, but it was the honest truth.

Then Thursday came, the article ran, and I think aquaponics in America has changed forever. It’s been the top 3rd or 4th most emailed story in the Times for two days now. The tweets having been flying. People around this country are hearing about this amazing, simple, symbiotic growing method for the first time and having “aha” moments. Amazing. Incredible. My heart is full.

A friend pointed out this afternoon that there was an interesting dialog going on in the comments of the article which was probably an accurate representation of Q and A’s going on in households all around the country. While I promise not to get into the habit of cutting and pasting other’s writings and calling it a blog post, I want to highlight the response to those questions given Karen Swanberg, a wonderful member of the aquaponics community who I hope to meet some day. Many of you may have the same questions / issues and she did a wonderful job of concisely and, in my opinion accurately, addressing those questions and concerns in a way that I wanted to echo with this blog.

The purple print is from a comment from a NYT reader, the green print is Karen’s response.


1) What feeds the plants is actually the large quantities of processed food being feed to the goldfish and Tilapia.

There are many aquaponics (AP) people who are feeding their fish completely off of non-commercial resources. Many use red worms (composting worms) and black soldier fly larvae. Many grow duckweed and other water plants. Using the compostable scraps from nearby restaurants can often produce enough worms/larvae etc. to feed the fish.

2) And the plants can not grow using nitrogenous waste alone. Minerals are depleted from the water

Many of us use oyster shells to buffer the pH, and those shells contain many of the micronutrients that are needed. In addition, if you’re using the worms/larvae from 1) to feed your fish, the micronutrients from the original scraps come through the system, back to the plants.
I also throw a handful of greensand into my growbeds about once a month.

3) If the greenhouse plants are attacked by pests they will be difficult to eradicate without poisoning the system and killing the fish.

Most APers use various forms of integrated pest management. Companion planting, beneficial insects and the like. Pests are an issue, but it’s no different than any other growing endeavor. The inability to use pesticides is one of the advantages of the system. Pesticides and herbicides hill the bacteria that convert the fish poo into nitrates that the plants can use.

4) they are inherently much more complicated than the article implies and are not closed systems by any means.

But not as complicated as you are making them seem. (author’s note – read prior blog post on Aquaponics is not Difficult)

5) They require a substantial amount of energy to regulate. They must be operated in a heated greenhouse of some type in temperate climates, must have electric pumps for aeration and water circulation. The pH and hardness of the water must be controlled for the health of the fish and as David said they require outside sources of feed and nutrients for the fish and plants health. They are not closed systems.

Energy is needed, but it can be acquired through renewable means. Most of us use low-power pumps, and some APers have even used bicycle-powered generators to power their pumps.

We’ve forgotten how, but greenhouses can be run without a significant amount of external heat. There is a couple in Milan, Minnesota who are running a winter CSA out of a greenhouse, and they only use about $50 worth of propane *for the entire winter*.
See:
http://www.landstewardshipproject.org… andhttp://search.barnesandnoble.com… for more information.

pH and hardness can be controlled by what you choose to use as your growing medium. As I mentioned in the comment above, many use oyster shells in the mix, and that helps both pH and hardness. Carefully chosen gravel goes a long way.

6) Thank you, James Godsil, for mentioning Growing Power and Sweetwater Organics. (I am not associated with either of them.)

7) The tomato from the grocery store was grown in a greenhouse. How does an aquaponic tomato compare to a greenhouse tomato, especially if that tomato was grown in a cellar under florescent lights?

They compare very well. The bell peppers I’ve grown in my basement have been delicious, and this produce compares to soil-based produce in taste, nutrition and naturally-grown-ness. Sun is always better than artificial lights, but really, very little AP is done solely under artificial lights (that I know about, anyway). (author’s note – the heirloom tomatoes from my AP system have become a requested hostess gift instead of a bottle of wine. They are incredible.)

In addition, the tilapia grown in AP is high in Omega-3s and low in Omega-9s, unlike the farmed tilapia that you buy in the grocery store.

8) And to echo a comment above, hydroponics always require the addition of fertilizers to the water. Hydroponically grown produce has a lower nutrient content and has generally less favorable quality for appearance and texture

Do NOT conflate aquaponics and hydroponics. They have some features in common, but AP uses all-natural fertilizer and inputs, while hydroponics is by definition artificial. Produce from AP is much closer to the produce from an organic farm than it is to hydroponic produce.

9) I would never consider aqua/hydroponic produce to be “organic.”

AP systems are now being certified organic by the FDA.
“We will show you how we got our aquaponics farm USDA Organic Certified AND Food Safety Certified” (from
http://www.friendlyaquaponics.com/training.html

The inputs used in hydroponics would kill an AP systems. You can’t use anything in AP that poison hydroponic and chemically-grown produce. It will kill the system.
10) By trying to maintain a constant temperature year round, this dramatically increase the amount of energy required to produce food, of any type.

There are non-electric ways to heat water. Solar water heaters, running the water underground to pick up ground heat, burying tanks… And, I also grow catfish in my AP systems. They are a natural fish here, and do not require any additional heat. Trout are also often used in AP systems, and they require extremely cold water.

11) The investment cost and ongoing energy requirements of food production must be lowered

We’re working on it! There are many active forums online that deal with these very things.
http://www.backyardaquaponics.com/forum/
http://www.aquaponicshq.com/forums/
Barrelponics yahoo group.

12) I was under the impression that tilapia are carnivorous fish,

Omnivorous. The babies (fry) need a lot of protein, but after that, they do just fine on non-meat-based food.

13) commercial tilapia farms are devastating to the environment

see above re: feeding AP fish from compost worms, black soldier fly larvae, duckweed and similar.

14) And they’re GOLDFISH. You can’t even eat them!

Well, you can. Carp is considered a delicacy in some places. Most of us just use goldfish to start our systems, though, because they’re cheap and tough. Then we graduate to tilapia, catfish, prawns… (author’s note – see prior post on To Eat or Not To Eat)

15) The strict environmental controls needed by the fish of course require a lot of electricity. And the greenhouse is, on my view, a remarkable waste of resources and money given the expected yields of such a system.

Again, see above. It is possible to do this, even in fricking cold climates, without huge energy inputs.
7) Nothing here about the introduction, presence or metabolic fate of antibiotics

Antibiotics would kill the bacteria which are the hidden engine of AP. Antibiotics can not be added to these systems.

18) Soil is great stuff. It buffers the availability of water and nutrients, buffers temperature extremes, and provides many other services that plants need. In hydroponic (or “aquaponic”) systems, every one of these services must be provided by the person overseeing the system.

The growing medium in AP is alive with bacteria, fungas and many of the other things that soil provides. Once the system is set up correctly, these issues are far smaller than they seem from the outside.

Check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHiNiWtkDFk
At the end, the speaker shows plants grown in his AP system right next to plants grown in soil. Same plants, planted the same time. The soil ones are scrawny compared to the AP plants.

19) It’s a boondoggle, fit only for novelty use or very special agricultural situations involving very high-value crops sold to affluent consumers.

You’re wrong. AP produce can be produced very cheaply, and Growing Power provides jobs and produce to many inner-city, non-privileged people.

20) they are toys for the rich.

Absolutely not. The system Travis designed, barrelponics, can be built almost entirely from scrounged materials. There are a lot of middle-to-lower income people who are providing their families with the highest-possible-quality produce with very little expense from these systems.

Bravo, Karen.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2010 12:30 am

    The NYT reader who commented basically doesn’t know what he/she is commenting on… I published The Growing Edge magazine for 20 years where I published many articles on aquaponics operations around the world. They are/were sustainable, organic and successful (making money.)
    Also, many hydroponic growers are installing aerated compost tea brewers in their nutrient tanks and are not using chemicals either. If there is a market for the produce, the growers will find a way to grow and supply that market.

    • February 20, 2010 7:39 am

      Thanks, Tom, and thank you for the support of Growing Edge magazine. To the readers of this blog, I’ve been a fan of Growing Edge for many years. It is a fascinating publication focused on alternative and progressive gardening techniques. I recommend taking a look at it.

  2. Andy Heller permalink
    February 20, 2010 12:18 pm

    I was fasinated by the article in the NY Times. I had a thought afterwards that it would great if aquaponics could somehow be combined with some of the commercial fish farming that is taking place and screwing up the environment. The stuff that is messing up the environment is basically the same stuff that plants love – fish poop. The one big issue is that much of the commercial fish farming is for salt or brackish water species like Salmon and Shrimp. Is there any useful agriculture that could work in conjunction with salt or brackish water? Desalination probably isn’t an option with the cost and energy use of current technology. I know this is probably far fetched, but might be a way to fix a problem and provide additonal food resources at the same time.

    • February 20, 2010 12:24 pm

      I agree Andy. Unfortunately, as you’ve probably guessed, salt water and most plants don’t mix. That said, there are operations that are growing kelp and seaweed as part of saltwater aquaculture programs. I think we will see much more of this is the future…it just makes too much economic sense not to.

  3. allochthon permalink
    February 20, 2010 2:21 pm

    People are working on saltwater AP. Two examples:

    Saltwater Aquaponics
    http://www.backyardaquaponics.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=215

    Salt water systems
    http://www.backyardaquaponics.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=4738

    -Karen
    http://www.howlingmoose.com/aquaponics_overview.html

    • February 20, 2010 2:28 pm

      Thanks, Karen. I tried these links and didn’t get anywhere but there are clearly discussion threads on BYAP about saltwater systems. Just do a keyword search on http://www.backyardaquaponics.com/forum/ if you have troubles finding what she is referring to.

  4. Art permalink
    February 20, 2010 5:59 pm

    I live in Alaska and indoor gardening is a natural fit. We need supplemental light just to get a houseplant to survive the dark winter. I was recently given an Aerogarden, which I’ve seen sold in several small Alaskan towns. After reading the NYT article, which also mentions the creator of the Aerogarden, I have what seems an obvious question: should I toss a few goldfish in the bottom of my Aerogarden? I’ve been wondering how to feed the plants when those little starter nutrient tablets are gone.

    • February 21, 2010 9:10 am

      Hi Art. Yes, I was with AeroGrow, the makers of the AeroGarden, from the beginning. I started the plant lab, developed the seed kit and accessory lines, was in charge of product development, and ended my career there this past October as the VP of Marketing. Alaska was one of our best markets, for the reasons you pointed out! We actually talked a lot about adding a gold fish to an AeroGarden, but to the best of my knowledge never actually did it. There are some pretty big roadblocks with the AeroGarden system design. First, you will have to start with pure (no nutrients), de-chlorinated water. You will then need to run your garden with a fish in it for at least two weeks before any nitrifying bacteria build up to a level where they are able to convert the fish ammonia to nitrates for the plants. Your plants will be shocked by both the sudden and continuing lack of food. If the fish survives, it will struggle because there won’t be much room for it to live and it will be competing with the plants for oxygen in that small space. Then, if all of this actually works, the fish survive, the plants survive, and you manage to build a bacterial base the fish will probably eat the roots of your plants (this is one of the reasons why in aquaponic systems we usually separate the fish from the plants). BUT, if you are a curious soul and want to give it a shot please don’t let me hold you back…and let us know how it works out!

  5. jonquil permalink
    February 22, 2010 7:59 am

    being incrediably new to this field, i am wondering if there are good introduction/beginner books available. i would like to do more research regarding starts/upkeep/right system before investing. thanks!

    • February 22, 2010 11:08 am

      The best book out there is Rebecca Nelson’s book “Aquaponic Food Production”, which you can buy off their website at aquaponics.com. I also highly recommend spending time on the Backyard Aquaponics forum – http://www.backyardaquaponics.com/forum/- and looking to Travis Hughey’s Barrelponics manaual – http://www.aces.edu/dept/fisheries/education/documents/barrel-ponics.pdf – for excellent specifics on designing your own inexpensive system from recycled components. I also invite you to join our new ning community – aquaponicscommunity.com – were we have a forum (among many) focused on the more experienced growers helping out the newbie aquapons. Best of luck!

  6. Anton permalink
    February 22, 2010 1:12 pm

    Hey, came here via the NYTimes article and wanted to give congrats. Bought an AeroGarden recently and have been very impressed by this whole thing. Nice work!

  7. jonquil permalink
    February 22, 2010 1:39 pm

    thanks for the recommendations!

  8. February 26, 2010 5:48 pm

    Nice blog, I like it.

    As to the article. I wish I had gone on there and posted some comments before they closed out the ability to comment on that article. There were so many negative comments that I wish to answer.

    So many people automatically think tilapia are the only choice for AP, so not true. We used tilapia last year but even here in Central Florida where the Blue tilapia are already escaped into nature from regular fish farms back in the 1970’s I found it too costly to keep the water warm enough for the tialpia to grow well through winter. However, there are Native fish that grow very nicely in Aquaponics. Our Channel Catfish do very well and frankly grow even faster than the tilapia did. They survive the cold but love the hot and are far easier to clean and fillet.

    Careful thought to design and pump choice can save on electricity for pumping to the point that solar panels could supply enough power to run a system.

  9. Ryan Rogers permalink
    March 9, 2010 1:06 pm

    Hi Sylvia – I tried to find a way to contact you directly, but couldn’t – hopefully you’ll notice this comment.

    I was wondering if you could point me to a source for tilipia fingerlings in the Denver area. I have a 12×16 greenhouse (not hydroponic at this point) up in Evergreen, and have a 100 gallon water tank in it for thermal mass. I’d like to throw some fingerlings in as an experiment to grow them out (not interested in breeding at this point), but am having trouble finding a source for fingerlings.

    Thanks a bunch…

    • March 9, 2010 1:34 pm

      Hi Ryan. A great resource in Colorado is the Gator Farm by Alamosa – http://www.gatorfarm.com/Tilapia_Farm.html. They sold me some fingerlings and delivered them when they were doing a run up to an Asian grocery store where they supply live fish – we did a parking lot exchange. Maybe they deliver in Evergreen? You might also want to join our ning community at aquaponicscommunity.com and sign up for the Tilapia group. We are keeping a list there of where aquapons can find tilapia (and other) fingerlings by state. Hope this helps!

  10. March 13, 2010 11:20 pm

    Great points…I would note that as someone who really doesn’t comment to blogs much (in fact, this may be my first post), I don’t think the term “lurker” is very flattering to a non-posting reader. It’s not your fault really , but perhaps the blogosphere could come up with a better, non-creepy name for the 90% of us that enjoy reading the posts.

    • March 14, 2010 8:01 am

      Great point, as I actually fit into that category as well. How about “observer”? Thanks for your thoughtful comment about my unthoughtful use of an unflattering term. I apologize.

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