Aquaponics is a sustainable agricultural practice that combines aquaculture (the farming of aquatic animals in tanks) and hydroponics (a soilless, plant growing technique). Aquaponics holds a long history that dates back to the period of the Aztec, however many still wonder: How does aquaponics actually work?
- The practice of aquaculture provides natural fish wastes in tanks, which then needs to be removed to insure healthy fish.
- There is a two-stage filtration process that starts with the water being transferred from the tanks to the hydroponic plants through pumps.
- The first stage is called mechanical filtration. This stage filters out the solid wastes from the fish.
- The second stage is the biological filtration. At this stage, the plants take the ammonia left in the water and convert it to nitrate.
In other words, the plants help recycle the water by filtering out the byproducts and simultaneously, the plants absorb the rich nutrient in the nitrate. This process not only cleanses the water and returns it to the fish tanks, but also provides a generous amount of nourishment for the plants. The cycle repeats, using less water in comparison to conventional farming, and keeps both the plants and fish healthy.
Aquaponics farms range in size. Some are operated for small, individual use, while others are aimed for large, commercial businesses such as Urban Organics, an aquaponics farm operating in St. Paul, Minnesota. Being one of the two USDA certified organic aquaponics facilities in the country, Urban Organics now owns two farm sites in St. Paul. The original, 8,000 square feet location of Urban Organics still fully functions at the Hamm’s Brewery building, while the new 80,000 square feet site at the Schmidt Brewery building is under preparation for opening this summer.
Dave Haider, one of the four co-founders of Urban Organics, states that he has the opportunity to experience both ends of the spectrum—keeping a small aquaponics farm in his basement as a hobby and also venturing out as an entrepreneur in the aquaponics farming business. Haider further reveals that his wife and co-founder, Kristen Koontz Haider, came up with the idea to make Urban Organics a reality in 2011. After the long process of researching the aquaponics industry, reaching out to collaborators, as well as the City of St. Paul, and partnering with Pentair Aquatic Eco-Systems, Haider and partners had the startup established and running in July 2013.
The driving forces behind Urban Organics’ business ideals have been to produce healthy, sustainable foods for local communities in the Twin Cities. They believe that by doing so, the ripple effect can also help revitalize neighborhoods and add more jobs to the local economy. The Hamm’s building, for instance, was left vacant for nearly two decades since its establishment in 1865. Haider discloses that the neighborhood that the historic landmark is located in is also registered as a food desert. Hence, he believes that building a sustainable, aquaponic farm in the area is a very suitable strategic plan. When asked about the progress of the revitalization, Haider states that the number coming from the City Council in this neighborhood sounds very promising even though Urban Organics “obviously can’t take the credit for all of it.” According to Haider, since the farm broke ground on Hamm’s building in early 2012, “there’s been over $200 million dollars invested in this community and over 500 jobs created.”
Currently, Urban Organics is preparing for the Schmidt building opening this summer. However, Haider hopes that the expansion at the Schmidt building could “open doors to multiple markets in the future” and increase fish and plant production. Thus far, the Hamm site produces 1,200 pounds of fish and 1,000 pound of salad greens and herbs per month. In contrast, the goal at the Schmidt site is to produce 23,000 pounds of fish and 40,000 pounds of salad greens and herbs monthly. Currently, Urban Organics products are sold at most local food co-ops in the Twin Cities as well as chain grocery stores such as Lunds and Byerlys, Kowalski’s Markets, and Cub Foods.
How will the aquaponics farming business model in St. Paul transform the community? What are some aquaponics farming initiatives in your city? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.
Credits: Images by Tam Nguyen. Data linked to sources.