What’s The Splash With Aquaponics?
Aquaponics is a term that most of us are familiar with. It refers to the closed-loop hydroponics method that uses fish waste as a natural fertilizer for plants. While aquaponics is a method that has been around for centuries and has been lauded for its sustainability, it is still very rarely seen in vertical farming practices. Why? After all, there are successful examples of the technology being used. Verticulture in Brooklyn, NY has a beautiful aquaponics operation in an old Pfizer warehouse where they grow barges of fresh basil alongside their tilapia. Edenworks also has a small greenhouse in Brooklyn that grows a variety of produce using aquaponics. Bustan aquaponics in Egypt is also a shinning example of the symbiotic system at work. Aquaponics as a closed-loop system can be extremely efficient but various challenges with the technique have prevented it from being more widely adopted.
In order to find out more about this issue, I went to visit the Cylburn Arboretum in Baltimore, MD. It was a Tuesday during open house hours when I walked into “The Foods System Lab” a small urban farm run by Johns Hopkins Center for a Living Future as a teaching and research farm. I was the only visitor and was able to spend time with Laura Genello, the farm manager, who patiently answered all my questions. Laura has a B.A in Environment Science from Brown University and developed an interest in farming when she spent a couple of seasons as an apprentice in Rhode Island learning about small-scale, soil-based vertical farming. Having worked at the Food Systems Lab for the past 3.5 years, she now is an expert at growing in water as well.
Laura and I walk around the greenhouse where she shows me the different set-ups they have to test various media and growing systems. They have a flood and drain system where they grow root vegetables in gravel. They also have a large water culture system where leafy greens can be seen emerging from containers nestled in styrofoam panels. Finally a couple of PVC pipes lining the side demonstrate the nutrient film technique. We spend most of our time, however, around a large plastic barrel containing some fifteen tilapia fish. Tilapia is the go-to fish for aquaponics operation because they are easy to care for and can be consumed. Standing there, watching the produce flourishing and the fish splashing along, it seems easy, I ask her we aren’t seeing more of this in the vertical farming industry.