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Year-round gardening: Aquaponics utilize fish, plants

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Throughout the countryside of Johnson County, fields of corn, soybeans and other crops have been harvested for the year.

The growing season is over for most producers. But not for John Woodbury.

In his heated barn and greenhouse, he’s growing cucumbers, heirloom lettuce blend and peppers. Nile tilapia swim in special tanks, to be harvested later and sold to fish markets.

Woodbury has joined the emerging science of aquaponics, where fish and vegetable production are morphed into a hybrid form of agriculture.

The system blends fish such as tilapia, crayfish, prawns and oysters with produce grown on floating rafts in the water. Both fish and plants, as well as naturally occurring bacteria, work together to ensure food production continues year-round.

“This is perfect. They can grow their own food, it’s right there in front of them. They can raise their own fish, even shrimp or prawns. And they can grow any types of vegetable and herbs they want,” Woodbury said.

In a pond or lake, fish, plants and bacteria all live together in a balanced system. Aquaponics replicates that ecosystem.

Farmers raise fish in a series of tanks. The water from those tanks is pumped through a system of clarifiers and filters to remove heavy particles of fish waste.

Aquaponics 101

What is aquaponics?

A combination of fish farming and growing plants in water rather than soil. The two productions work with naturally occurring bacteria to complete a balanced system.

What fish are typically raised in aquaponics?

Tilapia, bluegill, catfish, as well as crayfish, prawns and mussels.

What produce can be grown?

Nearly all types of plants can be grown in aquaponics set-ups, from lettuce, herbs and greens to sweet corn, tomatoes and peppers.

What do you need to get started?

At its simplest, all you need is a tank to raise fish, a grow bed with plants and a pump to move water between the two.

That can be anything from a thousand-gallon hole in the ground that has fish, bacteria and plants all together, to a home aquarium with oxygen-creating plants growing on a buoyant bed.

Instructions on systems can be found at backyardaquaponics.com.

Information from the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development.

Bacteria, which occur naturally in bodies of water, break down waste from the fish into nitrogen to fertilize the plants.

That water is pumped to growing beds, where vegetables remove nitrogen from the water and make it safe for the fish again. And the whole system repeats.

“The plant portion of the operation takes up the nutrients and products that we’d have to deal with as far as filtration. You’re creating a net positive from what could be a negative otherwise,” said Robert Rode, manager of the aquaculture research lab at Purdue University.

Aquaponics has been found to offer advantages over traditional farming methods, Rode said.

Growing crops in an aquaponic systems requires 10 percent of the land use of typical agriculture and 5 percent of the water required to keep the plants alive.

Production time is accelerated, as well. Butterhead lettuce, for example, can be produced in about 30 days, compared with the typical 60-day growing period needed for the crop.

Growth occurs year-round in a temperature-controlled enclosure, allowing farmers to market fresh produce during the fall and winter, when trucked-in produce is at its highest price.

“The produce that comes out of these is spectacular. Very clean, no dirt on it. It’s very easy to eliminate pests,” Rode said.

That is the appeal of aquaponics to Jerome Gust, produce manager for Bloomingfoods Market and Deli. The Bloomington co-op specializes in local foods; and with aquaponics’ year-round capabilities, it’s a perfect way to get fertilizer-free produce from area growers, Gust said.

Bloomingfoods purchases lettuce and other greens from Woodbury’s farm, Nature’s Gift Aquaponics.

“We try to get local in whenever we can. (Woodbury) can do it in the offseason, so it fits in with his systems of growing fish year long,” Gust said. “We get some real nice product.”

A biology student at Franklin College, Woodbury learned about aquaponics after graduating. He was looking for a job and found that this emerging form of agriculture filled a void in Indiana. Commercial operations are in their infancy, and Woodbury has the facilities on his family’s Morgantown farm to set up a large system.

Well water, free of fluoride and other chemicals that could harm fish, is pumped into the heated barn and greenhouse. Woodbury and his father, Max, crafted a wood-burning exterior furnace that vents hot air to both the fish barn and the greenhouse.

They’ve also created a rain-capture system on the roof of the barn, which funnels rainwater into tanks.

He founded Nature’s Gifts Aquaponics in late 2012. Since then, he’s sold produce to area stores such as Bloomingfoods and Richard’s Market in Franklin.

“I’ve always loved working with plants and animals, and this gave me a chance to work with both of them in a completely natural way of growing,” Woodbury said. “It was awesome that you could have both together in one package.”

Farmers markets have provided the main outlet for his produce so far. But one of the problems he’s experiencing is explaining what aquaponics is and calming any misconceptions people might have about it.

“A lot of people don’t know what aquaponics is. They don’t know if it’s safe or not, or what it is. We have to show them,” John Woodbury said. “A huge part is teaching.”

The Johnson County Health Department has inspected and approved the operation, as have agricultural regulators from the state. While partially it’s been to ensure the production methods are safe, it’s mostly been as a learning experience for inspectors who have never seen anything like it.

Agricultural and aquacultural experts are also unsure what the long-term viability for the operations are.

“It’s something right now that’s niche markets.We don’t push on anyone to put on a huge operation. Start small, see what your market is, if you can upsize from there,” Rode said. “The big picture stuff is very good. But we need to see over time if you can make money.”

Woodbury is working with Franklin College to provide an internship during its winter session to teach students about aquaponics. He hopes that the more that people are involved in the process, the more it will spread, he said.

Currently, he is in the process of moving outside commercial aquaponics to serve as a guide for future fish-and-crop farmers.

People from as far away as Fort Wayne have come to tour his facility and learn how to begin doing aquaponics in their garage or basements. He has plans to open up a retail store in Franklin in December, selling tanks, pumps, filters and other components allowing people to create their own aquaponics operation.

“You can build one for cheap at your house and supply produce at your house year-round,” John Woodbury said.

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