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Closed-Loop Aquaponic Growing System Combines Land And Lake

posted on September 20, 2013


Over the past three months, there have been signs of slow, albeit rocky, growth in the U.S. economy.

According to the Labor Department, the consumer price index increased just 0.1 percent in August for an annual growth rate of 1.5 percent. When the volatile food and energy sectors are removed CPI is only 1.8 percent higher than a year ago.

But members of the Federal Reserve Board are not convinced this and other economic activity is enough to have them reduce their monthly injection of $85 billion into the U.S. economy. Fed officials are predicting just 2 percent growth this year -- down from 2.3 percent in June -- and agreed to continue monthly bond purchases.

Stock traders on the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ cheered the move as indices on both exchanges moved higher. While the NASDAQ stayed below record numbers the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 hit record highs mid-week only to fall back as trading ended Friday.

Like trades in the stock and commodity markets, farming is all about finding the right combination of timing and inputs to turn a profit. Many have searched for the optimum combination of seed and fertilizer or specific animal breeds and feed rations in hopes of finding a money making combination.  One Midwestern entrepreneur has embarked on that search taking his cue from some centuries old farming techniques to combine land and lake in one place. Josh Buettner explains.

You may not envision fish tanks on the prairie as the best place to look for added value amidst large agricultural operations. Nevertheless, some folks in America’s heartland are giving it a try.

Whether it’s a hobby developed during the off-season, or an entrepreneurial foray into niche markets, sustainable, self-sufficient aquaponic systems are hatching in some unexpected locations. 

Though history suggests a rudimentary form of aquaponics existed in ancient civilizations, the modern blending of aquaculture and hydroponics has increased steadily since the late 1990’s. Industry standards were developed at the University of the Virgin Islands, where the warm climate facilitated large-scale operations. 

Further north, though, the use of indoor aquaponics as a hedge against extreme summer heat doesn’t seem that far-fetched to some.  The symbiotic closed-loop method offers the opportunity to turn a small profit by growing crops typically cultivated in other regions of the country.

Allen Pattillo, Fisheries and Aquaculture Extension Specialist, Iowa State University: "Aquaponics is popular as a concept now, and it’s going to be popular as industry practice very soon.  I would say in the next 20 years we’re going to have a lot of our produce in the Midwest coming from aquaponics.”

 Higher education has continued research into the science of this hybrid discipline.  Promising scenarios have emerged for one-time curiosities to evolve into viable, green operations. 

Allen Pattillo, Fisheries and Aquaculture Extension Specialist, Iowa State University:  "Aquaponics is a synergistic relationship between plants and fish.  Basically, you feed the fish food.  That protein then breaks down into nitrates that can be used by the plants.  The plants strip the nitrate from the water, clean up the water for the fish, and the whole cycle continues.”

An emphasis on education and conservation are central to the mission of The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.  Located on the campus of Iowa State University, the Center seeks to reduce negative environmental impacts associated with farming, and develop new revenue streams for producers.  Leopold Center funding supports Extension outreach efforts like those of Fisheries and Aquaculture Specialist Allen Pattillo.  He and other instructors educate and advise students -- and the public -- on the science, economics and marketing aspects of sustainable aquaculture.

Allen Pattillo/Iowa State University: “A lot of people wonder how do you grow plants in water?  Whenever you can overwater a plant and it starts to die…Well the reason is we maintain a higher oxygen concentration in the water than you would be able to maintain in the soil.  You get very fast growth rates out of the plants, but you also get two products – fish and plants.  The combination of those two make you more profitable.”

All kinds of plants can be grown in this environment, though herbs and leafy greens currently are the most common crop.  And, for those lured to try their luck raising fish, a certain African species just might be the perfect catch. 

Allen Pattillo, Fisheries and Aquaculture Extension Specialist, Iowa State University:  “Right now we are using Nile Tilapia and that’s a very popular species to use.  For aquaponics, it’s very easy to grow…has a lot of tolerance for water quality, which for a beginning fish farmer might be an issue for them.”

Jeff Hafner, Early Morning Harvest: "Who’s a t.v. star today?”

Iowa State Extension helps local producers kick-start operations that seek value in the spaces between the traditional monoculture of corn and soybeans. 

Earl and Jeff Hafner operate Early Morning Harvest near Panora, Iowa.  The father-son team says for generations in their family, farming is the only life they’ve ever known.

Firmly rooted in their role as stewards of the land, the Hafners began to incorporate their vision of sustainability over a decade ago.

Jeff Hafner, Early Morning Harvest: "The whole farm is organic.  Small grains, the wheat, the rye, the buckwheat, corn, soybeans and also the pasture and forage for the cattle because the cattle is organic.  You have to protect the environment.  You know, every farmer out here, the soil is his life, the plants and the animals are his life.  Anything that destroys the environment would destroy his livelihood or his kids’ future livelihood.”

After discovering aquaponics, Hafner helped pass his free time serving in the military overseas by reading up on the subject.  Upon returning to Iowa, he expected to simply start a new hobby.

Jeff Hafner, Early Morning Harvest: "What intrigued me the most is…grandma was a big gardener.  I always liked to garden, however, you plant your garden and as most people know then you have to go plant your corn and soybeans.  You come back 30, 40 days later and you about know what your garden looks like.”

Noting the crucial value of water during his stint in the Middle East validated the importance of conservation to Hafner, and aquaponics presented an opportunity to keep precious resources from going to waste.

Jeff Hafner, Early Morning Harvest: “What I like about it is technically the only way water leaves this greenhouse is through evaporation and transpiration.  And that’s the sustainable part of it, as water, we’re in a drought now...    As the world’s population gets bigger, water is the huge issue. We’ve been blessed here in the Midwest.  We might experience how tough it is down in Texas and some of those places.”

After receiving a grant from Iowa State to continue his work in aquaponics, Hafner took a hard look at the economics of the endeavor.

Jeff Hafner, Early Morning Harvest: “If you wanted to raise cattle you went to the banker and said, ‘I’m going to raise 100 head of cattle’.  He knew there’s industry standards. He knew the numbers. And when I was looking at the numbers it was tough to find numbers on it.  So that’s where I said I’ll open my books up and my first year was rough.”

Despite initial hurdles, Early Morning Harvest pressed on, learning from its mistakes.  Refining methods over time allowed the Hafners to share their newfound expertise with others.

Jeff Hafner, Early Morning Harvest: “If you have a CSA and it’s two-thirds, three-fourths of a year type operation you could add a small aquaponics greenhouse to help fill the gap, maybe keep your labor year round that way.”

The free-flowing exchange of ideas has helped this growing field build momentum.  For those dipping their toes into new markets that could be lucrative, Iowa State offers online resources as well.  The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center and the national Market Maker site present information on business planning and connecting with buyers.     

Dan Burden/Iowa State University: “If you’re a small producer you can find all those people within the community that are interested in getting your product and they can see you.  One of the nice things about aquaponics is you can start very small and scale it up.  Find your customer, find your client that is going to want your product.  And as you’ve seen in this kind of system, you can create extremely high-value products.”

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.


Tags: Allen Pattilo aquaponics closed-loop Early Morning Harvest fish Iowa Iowa State University Extension Jeff Hafner Panora