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Raising fish and plants together can be done – and can be accomplished successfully and sustainably. Aquaponics and hydroponics systems are quickly moving from the realm of experimental to commercial as researchers and growers alike have turned the systems into working models of sustainable food production. Aquaculture, for example, is one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. and global agricultural economies, growing at a rate of 6.5 percent per year, according to the Fisheries Technologies Associates, Inc. The 2007 USDA census of agriculture counted 6,409 farmers and ranchers reporting freshwater aquaculture sales in the US. Total sales were $1.4 billion.

What is it?

Hydroponics is soilless plant farming – basically growing plants without soil in a liquid. Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics. It utilizes fish wastewater as a resource by circulating it through hydroponic growth beds where plants take up its nutrients. A symbiotic relationship is formed between fish and plants, though difficult to maintain the balance, where the fish provide most of the plants’ required nutrients and the plants clean the water for the fish.

An aquaponics system is suitable for both inside and outside a property. These systems cut water use, decrease dependence on fertilizers and pesticides, make much more flexible use of land and reduce waste – thus helping to meet the growing demand for local fresh fish and produce.

Aquaponics and Hydroponics as a viable farming method:

  • Decreased water use: 70-90% of the water used in these systems is saved through recirculation.
  • Decrease dependence on crop inputs: aquaponics produces its own nutrients through recirculation of fish waste through the system. . Additionally, if an indoor, controlled system is used, the fish and plants aren’t exposed as much to disease or pest pressures.
  • Flexible land use: both hydroponics and aquaponics have the capacity to grow 10 times more produce in the same footprint as terrestrial farming. Compared to soil farming they can deliver 30 percent faster time to harvest. These systems can be employed anywhere with suitable light, including rooftops and parking lots, as well on non-arable land and indoors.
  • Waste reduction: aquaponics systems have zero discharge, as all the waste is recycled into the system.
  • Locally produced: since these systems can be set up almost anywhere with suitable light, including indoors, produce can be raised in geographies where growing outside would be a challenge during winter months. Room for improvement: like all farming systems, there is always room to grow and improve. Two of the main disadvantages to hydroponic and aquaponics systems are 1) the high amount of electricity needed to keep the systems running and 2) the difficulty in maintaining a balanced system between fish and plants (different fish require different water temperatures and pH, so some species are incompatible). Continued research is needed on alternative energy solutions for running these systems (like solar energy) and on polycultured systems that can grow more than one type of fish.

The future

All kinds of plants can be grown in this environment, though herbs and leafy greens currently are the most common crop. Aquaponics is suitable for environments with limited land and water because it produces about three to six times the vegetables and uses much less water than traditional agriculture. An aquaponics system set up by the University of the Virgin Islands Aquaculture Program occupies only 0.12 acres of land and can produce nearly 5 metric tons of tilapia along with 1,400 cases of leaf lettuce. By contrast with traditional farming methods, one acre of land will produce 500 to 1,300 cases of leaf lettuce.

Alternative methods of raising fish and crops may be necessary to ensure sufficient supplies of high quality food. In the future, aquaponics will continue to gain increased attention as a bio-integrated food production system, an urban-friendly technology and a sustainable farming technique.

Your story

Are you involved in this type of farming? We’d like to hear about your farm and share your story with our followers. To submit your story, please use this link: http://www.fooddialogues.com/farmers-ranchers/share

Aquaponics and Hydroponics in the news: