Aquaponics: Efficient, Effective

For 13,000 years, we were organic farmers. We concentrated on caring for the soil so that it could care for the plants. Then the world discovered fertilizer.

Plants need 16 different elements for growth and we realized that chemical fertilizers can provide the perfect diet for plants to grow. We even found that if you add nutrients to the water you can grow plants without soil. Growing plants without soil is called Hydroponics. The nutrient solution is reused over and over so that it can efficiently utilize these nutrients and conserve water use.

In a conventional farm application where chemical fertilizers are used, a large amount of water is required for irrigation as there is much more root media to saturate and many nutrients are lost to leaching and competitive organisms within the field. The water is used once and then needs to be reapplied. As you continue to irrigate, more fertilizer must be added as the “old” nutrients leach out from the field to the surrounding areas and waterways.

Over the last 50 years, the overuse of mineral and chemical fertilizers has shown to increase the erosion of soil by depleting the organic matter that helps bind the soil together. As the soil becomes depleted, more water is needed since it is not held in the soil due to the increased porosity of the soil structure. Like water through sand. As these fertilizer salts filter through the ground, organic matter is turned to dust and it literally blows away. Like the Dust Bowl event that happened in the 1930s, poor erosion prevention practices such as over-tilling and not using cover crops are removing the topsoil rapidly.

As the health of our soil becomes depleted, its ability to support organic life is compromised requiring more fertilizer to grow the plants and overcome this problem. More fertilizer means more erosion and as the fertilizer continues to be supplied, it begins to leach into our lakes and streams causing algal blooms and a host of other poisonous activity.

The leaching of fertilizers increases the release of nitrates and phosphates in our waterways known as eutrophication. As the algal bloom increases, phytoplankton continues to reproduce creating and consuming oxygen in the daytime and using even more oxygen in the evening hours as cell division occurs. During the bacterial decomposition of the dead phytoplankton cells, more oxygen is used causing low oxygen levels in the water. Low oxygen results in smaller fish and compromised reproduction of marine animals. These areas are called Dead Zones like the famous one located in the Gulf of Mexico.

Dead zones are reversible. The Black Sea dead zone, previously the largest dead zone in the world, largely disappeared between 1991 and 2001 after fertilizers became too costly to use following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of centrally planned economies in Eastern and Central Europe. Fishing has again become a major economic activity in the region. Mee, Laurence (November 2006). “Reviving Dead Zones”. Scientific American.

The organic movement has been reborn as a result of these complications of “conventional” farming and the pollution it can create. Taking care of our soil and our waterways is where it begins.

Unfortunately, some areas of the Earth are already compromised with scarce water resources and do not have arable land. Hydroponics helps communities that do not have many farming resources to produce crops by maximizing the resources they do have.

Aquaponics combines the practice of hydroponics with aquaculture to create an extremely efficient symbiotic system to grow fish and plants with minimal water usage.

In standard Aquaculture, large water exchanges are required to remove the build up of nitrates in the water. This water is released into the environment through the sewage system or our waterways. Aquaponics helps to alleviate the problem of nitrate pollution by utilizing the nitrates produced by aquaculture through the growth of plants.

There are 3 major components in Aquaponics: fish, plants and bacteria. The fish consume fish food and create waste. The waste is comprised of mainly ammonia, which is poisonous to the fish and must be removed or biologically converted to something less poisonous. Specific bacteria in the system act as a biofilter helping to convert the ammonia to nitrite and then to nitrate, which is a safe form of nitrogen to fish when kept at reasonable levels. The nitrate is then used by the plants to grow, filtering the water so that it will not be toxic to the fish and the water is reused instead of dumped.

Aquaponics is highly sustainable and can be used on a large or small scale to produce healthy organic food. We can even do it vertically further enhancing the amazing efficiencies of aquaponic farming.

Aquaponics gives you a protein source and the ability to raise fruits and vegetables all in the same location. Many foods travel far from their origin to reach the dinner plate. A great benefit of Aquaponics is that it affords the grower the ability to produce healthy organic crops locally virtually eliminating huge transportation costs.

Aquaponics efficiently and effectively manages our resources so that we can sustainably produce organic crops along with an abundance of fish in an environmentally sound way.

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