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Aquaponics and Biodynamic Farming

April 27, 2010

Last week I was interviewed by a reporter from the Colorado Springs Independent who was writing a marvelous article on an aquaponic gardener called Alligator Joe. At the end of the brief interview she suggested that I approach Pikes Peak Urban Gardens about teaching an aquaponics course there. Always looking for new ways to spread the aquaponic word, I sent them an inquiry email.

The first response, from Director Larry Stebbins, said that he would forward my email to the person in charge of their programming and asked “if you follow organic principles as this is our mission.” No problem there, I replied. Aquaponics is both necessarily organic and extremely sustainable.

He then replied that same day with the following email…

Sylvia, our gardens at Harlan Wolfe Ranch follow biodynamic principles. In such a system plants that naturally grow in connection with the soil are not recommended for growing in a water system. However using watercress, cattails, water hyacinth etc. to extract excess nutrients from pond water is not only acceptable but highly recommended. We would use these water-based plants to enrich our compost (perhaps harvest and eat the watercress and parts of catails). We do not support the growth of spinach, lettuce, tomatoes etc. in a water medium. Biodynamic farming research is clear on this point. There is more to healthy plants than just color and size. The vitality comes with the proper relationship that a plant has to not only the soil but the entire sphere above the soil as well.

We believe it necessary to enrich and heal the earth. That can only be done by the careful tending, composting and companion planting in the soil. It is our mission to not only encourage local, organic and fresh but also to leave the earth (soil) a bit healthier.
It is tempting to see our “sick” and “dying” soils and want to plant in buildings, containment systems and use hydroponic methods. This keeps us from the important task of repairing our land and restoring the “life” that we have robbed from it over the past century. The plants have an undeniable connection to the earth. It is our job to nurture and promote that connection not deny it.
We do not wish to encourage growing land based plants in a soil-less environment.
We encourage further discussion.


My response

Your email posed some interesting points that deserve careful consideration, and since you encouraged further discussion I thought I might try a final time to address your issues.

Until I read your last email, I didn’t realize that your mission was to promote bio-dynamic farming and repairing the land. I assumed based on the stated mission on your website (“cultivate, education and serve the community through urban garden projects in Pikes Peak region”) that your organization was about bettering the urban community through education in sustainable, productive gardening techniques. Under that assumption, aquaponics is perhaps the most sustainable growing technique available today. It requires no chemical additives and the small pump circulating the water can be run using solar. Most importantly, it uses less than a tenth of the water needed with soil-based agriculture. This says a lot since soil-based agriculture currently uses an astounding 80% of the available water in this country. While I’m also all for repairing the heart-breaking damage we have inflicted on our earth, the notion that urban centers can be restored to soil-based farmland that is productive enough to meet the food needs of its citizens is, in my view, impractical for the foreseeable future. We have additional options, and our food future will depend on deploying the most productive and practical option for each particular situation.

I did a little research on bio-dynamic farming. My assumption going in was that it was a close cousin of permaculture, but I remembered something in the back of my mind about the phases of the moon being important. I found that my memory was basically correct. Wikipedia notes “Methods unique to the biodynamic approach include the use of fermented herbal and mineral preparations as compost additives and field sprays and the use of an astronomical sowing and planting calendar.[6] Biodynamics originated out of the work of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the spiritual philosophy anthroposophy.” Not my cup of tea, but, as I said earlier, I believe that developing a portfolio of sustainable growing techniques is critical to our food future in this country. I will ardently support any group promoting such techniques…but not to the exclusion of others. Just as I wouldn’t recommend that an aquaponic operation be built over productive fertile farmland, nor would I recommend the use of soil-based biodynamic techniques in the warehouse district of Detroit.

As an aside, permaculturalists have enthusiastically embraced aquaponics and many organizations have made it a critical part of their certification curriculum. I’ve been told that aquaponics fits extremely well with their principles of designing agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in natural ecologies. I have taught sections for these certification courses, and am teaching a course on aquaponics at the Lyons, CO Farmette on May 8 from 9 – 12. I invite you to attend as my personal guest.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. hambob permalink
    April 27, 2010 1:57 pm

    you may also want to point out specifically that bio-dynamic wouldn’t be short term viable in industrial Detroit simply because of ground contamination… That takes years and years to clean up properly before it could be used for food production

  2. Heidi S. permalink
    April 27, 2010 3:53 pm

    Good reply. I am astonished at how BAD farming is for the land, in general. It’s also extremely wasteful, compared to the efficiency of aquaponics. It’s so tempting to think “natural = good” but there really is no such thing as natural farming, though permaculture comes close. We “permaculture” berries and apple trees and rhubarb, but at best you get one big crop a year in this climate. And like Hambob points out, you can’t even plant anything safely in some soils.

  3. Bob Segraves permalink
    May 29, 2010 6:02 pm

    Very good response. Do tell us if, after reading your response, Mr. Stebbins did in fact attend. And of so, what was his reaction when he had the opportunity to learn more of the principles of aquaponics.

    • May 30, 2010 3:05 pm

      No, Mr. Stebbins did not take me up on my offer. It’s too bad – I think he would have enjoyed it.

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