What does every kid learn in school? That to grow anything, you need seed, soil, water and sun. But what if you removed soil from the equation? Wouldn’t the possibilities be almost endless?
And now that’s becoming a reality. A form of agriculture that combines aquaculture (fish farming) with hydroponics (growing plants in water), aquaponics is an interesting alternative for cold-weather nations like ours, as well as urban centres and community growers, as Ontario’s Mississauga Food Bank is showing.
“I read an article online about a year ago about aquaponics, and realized it had potential to help solve a challenge at the food bank,” says Christopher Hatch, executive director of The Mississauga Food Bank. After more research, Hatch hired Wisconsin-based aquaponics consulting firm Nelson and Pade, Inc. to help him set up a system at his facility. “I liked the idea of growing year-round in Canada, with our weather, and it being so cold in winter,” says Hatch. “This way, we can grow in the warehouse and control the environment.”
As Canada’s first aquaponics food bank, AquaGrow Farms is a 500-square-foot urban farm located in a warehouse of The Mississauga Food Bank. There, fresh produce and protein is grown throughout the year and distributed to feed locals in need. Three grow beds and two fish tanks will produce approximately 645 servings of fish and 10,800 servings of greens each year. “It’s unique, creative and innovative, and solves an issue by providing increased amounts of fresh produce and protein. We built a farm in August and were growing in the fall,” says Hatch.
“The Mississauga Food Bank is a very innovative use of our technology because it’s using aquaponics to feed people who don’t have fresh food—it’s a great new direction for food banks,” says Rebecca Nelson, co-founder of Nelson and Pade. “We have the longest history and most experience in aquaponics. We provide growers with everything they need, including training, so they can be successful both short and long term.”
With a long-time interest in fresh food for all, Nelson and her partner, John Pade, built their company around commercial hydroponics, where plants were fed a fertilizer solution. “Then about 20 years ago,” says Nelson, “we learned about fish being used to nourish the plants, and we saw this as a great solution to our need for fertilizer—you get free fertilizer from fish, and you get protein and a plant crop at once. We did the research, talked with scientists and started converting some of our hydroponic systems. It became our only focus because it made so much sense.”
Today, the company serves thousands of clients around the world and has carved a niche for itself as the go-to aquaponics systems supplier. “Many of our customers are large commercial growers who provide at wholesale level to grocery stores,” says Nelson. “If you eat a piece of lettuce or tomato grown in our systems, it’s as good as it gets. There’s no stress, no pesticides or herbicides. We feed a high-quality non-GMO diet to the fish, and the fish waste, as it breaks down, provides everything for plant growth.”
Though its focus is on large-scale commercial systems, Nelson and Pade also creates smaller systems for homeowners and smaller farms. “We want to make it easy for people to get a quality system,” says Nelson. “Our smallest system fits in a few hundred square feet and provides a meal of fish every two weeks and pretty much all the produce you could consume.” She adds that a bigger family would require a bigger home system, and that most smaller systems are located in greenhouses.
Nelson says that clients can expect a return on investment of three to four years. “You’re eliminating fish and produce from your grocery budget, and using that to pay back your aquaponics system. Then, it’s basically free food, less fish and energy, from then on. It’s a quick payback,” she says, noting that small systems start at about $3,000 US. “Food is really expensive these days. Maybe some have a backyard garden, they go out and buy equipment, but they can only harvest for those two months of summer. This will grow year-round. Once running, it will always produce food.”
It’s not for everyone, however. “Not every space is designed to hold a tank full of water,” says Nelson, when talk turns to condo dwellers. “You need to consider weight, and keep in mind you’ll need light (if you’re not using a greenhouse, but rather a basement or garage), as well as ventilation, for the plant to grow. Greenhouses are ideal and most economical. They have a much lower energy cost because of all that natural light.”
And then there’s the time involved with looking after the system. At AquaGrow Farms, aquaponics farm supervisor Colin Cotton works part-time to oversee the farm. “Colin cleans the pumps, tests water for pH, and checks on the health of the fish, as well as the plants,” says Hatch. “Volunteers help as well.”
Hatch completed the two-day Aquaponics Master Class course at Nelson and Pade, plus a full week of advanced on-site training. “I told Colin, ‘We’re going to learn together,’” says Hatch, who encourages reading up on and undergoing some training in aquaponics before getting started.
“It’s like having a swimming pool: If you ignore it, it can bite you and go off kilter. Monitoring is very critical,” says Hatch. “Aquaponics is really about balancing what plants need and what fish need, and meeting in the middle. If it’s too far off, plants won’t do well and fish won’t do well.”
Still, for so many, it’s worth the effort. “Our industry is growing exponentially—we’ve had people from all over the world attend our Master Class,” says Nelson, who points out the possibilities not just for commercial and domestic use, but for use with missions and food banks as well. “They have great potential to adopt this technology, get a return on investment, get a better-quality product, and employ people in the process,” she says. “There’s great value in that.”
Nelson mentions a mission in Haiti that put in a Nelson and Pade aquaponics system from which they supplement food for thousands of people a day. She says that while the goal is food, it’s often also job creation, since putting an aquaponics system in an urban area can revitalize what’s available as far as food and jobs.
Currently, AquaGrow Farms is harvesting about 40 heads of romaine lettuce a week, which is packaged and immediately shipped off to food banks across the city. “The first batch of fish were harvested and processed in March—it takes six months to grow the fish to the full size,” says Hatch. “We’re currently growing tilapia. Most aquaponics growers use tilapia and leafy greens at the beginning. We’re currently running 60 days from seed to harvest, but we aim to speed that up to 45 days, perhaps using additional LED lighting.”
As Hatch notes, “Aquaponics is huge—it’s definitely the future of farming.” The benefits, he says, are not only in urban areas but also in places where water and soil are difficult to come by. “In my Master Class at Nelson and Pade, I met people from Bermuda and Puerto Rico looking to develop large-scale aquaponics for their countries and communities. They have little to no fresh water or soil, yet plenty of sunshine for growing, which is ideal for aquaponics…. Aquaponics uses 95 percent less water than traditional farming and allows for denser planting, resulting in greater yields using the same space.”
Still, Hatch is not without words of warning: “Before you jump in, do your homework, read about it, visit other aquaponics operations, commercial and otherwise. I would strongly recommend partnering with someone like Nelson and Pade, who are experts and do this as a living. Where I see this often go wrong is when enthusiastic people try doing this alone, DIY.”
He adds, “Once you start this process, it doesn’t stop. You’re constantly having to watch the fish and the entire farm 24-7. We’ve had to figure out how to feed the fish on the weekend. We did research, bought programmable fish feeders, and now the fish are fed the exact amount of food at the prescribed time when we’re away.”
A big proponent of personal empowerment by growing your own, author Michelle Catherine Nelson talks about building patio ponds in her book The Urban Homesteading Cookbook. “Patio ponds are great because they give people the option of growing their own food and the decision of where their food is coming from, especially people in urban environments who might not have access to fresh, healthy food and aren’t able to ask questions about where their food is coming from. It allows people to grow their food themselves, connects them better to the landscape and where food comes from, and it’s safer and healthier for people,” she says.
“One idea that has caught on, in cities around the world, is using this as a way to feed people in inner cities, where there isn’t a lot of arable land left,” she explains. “You could do it in a parking lot, in shipping containers. You could have a fish tank set up inside it and grow plants above it. It could feed people protein and plants. It’s one of the best uses of the technology.”
It’s certainly been worth it for The Mississauga Food Bank. Feedback to the program has been great, notes Hatch. “It’s so rare for our clients to see fresh produce and fish in their diet, especially in the wintertime in Canada,” he says. “We’ve received worldwide attention, including from food banks as far away as Africa. Many of the major Canadian food banks have been here to see the farm and learn from our experience. They’re all congratulating us, saying, ‘You actually made it happen.’ We’re speaking at conferences. It’s amazing how it has caught people’s attention. We’re thrilled to get the word out. My wish and hope is that other food banks come to see us and try it. It’s a great way to grow your own fresh food year-round and to demonstrate to the community a viable and sustainable form of urban farming. It’s better, fresher food.”