Raising fish alongside plants? “Water farmers” dive into aquaponics

It sounds like a grow-op designed by Ikea. Paul Shumlich is describing the farm he’s planning to build. It will contain no soil and admit no sunlight. The walls will be industrial-chic concrete, the floors spotless. Plants will grow in meticulous rows under LED lights, their roots suspended in water. Fish will swim placidly in blue pools. It’s all very clean, very tasteful, very Scandinavian. It’s Deepwater Farms, an aquaponics operation, and Shumlich is betting it’s going to change the way Calgarians eat.

I’m interviewing Shumlich in his marketing manager’s downtown office. As we speak, he’s finalizing details with an investor to make the indoor farm a reality. If all goes according to plan, Deepwater Farms will be the largest, most advanced aquaponics farm in the Calgary area. (His preferred site is in the Chestermere area.) He’s convinced me that if anyone can make it happen, it’s him. Dressed all in black, he looks the part of the entrepreneur, but his youthful optimism and cherubic good looks drive home the fact that he’s only 26. “Local isn’t just a fad,” he tells me. “We need a resilient food system. That’s my drive.” He thinks the answer is aquaponics, a system of agriculture that few Calgarians have even heard of.

The unconventional farming method combines aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants in water) in a single, closed system. Fish are kept in ponds or pools, and produce waste that is broken down into nitrites and then nitrates by micro-organisms. The waste water is sent to the plants, which absorb the nitrates and, in the process, clean the water, which is then sent back to the fish. Recirculation means that the system uses approximately 95 per cent less water than conventional farming methods. It’s completely organic, and it grows plants at incredible rates, many times faster than conventional methods.

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Aquaponics was arguably developed by the Mayans, who cultivated chinampas, systems of canals and manmade islands on which they grew vegetables. There are also historical accounts of fish being farmed in rice paddies in China and Southeast Asia, but modern aquaponics is generally attributed to the work of the New Alchemy Institute and the research of Mark McMurtry, a graduate student at North Carolina State University in the 1980s. In the late 1990s, James Rakocy, a professor of aquaculture at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), and his colleagues used their research on effluent treatment and raft cultures to develop a reliable and replicable commercial system. Rakocy and his colleagues taught the UVI method of aquaponics to students all over the world.

The field of aquaponics was becoming well-established and commercially viable. And that’s when Rakocy came to Alberta. In Brooks, a place more typically associated with feedlots and slaughterhouses than with permaculture, he and Nick Savidov, an Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development researcher, built a replica of the UVI system at the Crop Diversification Centre South. Lethbridge College was also experimenting with aquaponics, beginning with research in 1989 that examined whether triploid grass carp could control aquatic vegetation in irrigation canals. In 2015, the college recruited Savidov, cementing its reputation as an important centre of aquaponics research.

Aquaponics producers speak of Savidov in reverential tones. He is the Yoda of the field and is sought out by anyone in Alberta who’s interested in aquaponics. “Savidov handed us a big chunk of research that he’d already done. He’s already doing all the commercial viability studies. It was basically the reason that convinced me to get involved,” says Dan Ronald, owner of Aqua Terra Farms, a small Okotoks-based business. But like most aquaponics producers, the hard science wasn’t what triggered Ronald’s interest. For him, trips to the Arctic and the Amazon in 2008 “really bummed me out. I came back and was talking to my buddy, and we started talking about the future: ‘We’re going to be living on Mars in a hundred years! The planet’s in trouble.’ ”

Shumlich’s interest began when he was a student running a window-washing business. It was paying his way through university, but it wasn’t satisfying. “I wanted to put time and money into something more meaningful. I wanted it to be about the triple bottom line: people, profit, planet,” he says. Shumlich started scouring the Internet for ideas, and discovered aquaponics. He dove in, but at the back of his mind he wondered, “Is this some sort of hippy technology?”

He drove down to Lethbridge College to meet Charlie Shultz, Savidov’s predecessor, and came back convinced that he needed to start unconventional farming. The next step was rounding up a bunch of his window-washing buddies to help him build a rudimentary aquaponics system in the backyard of his parents’ rental house. They hit an immediate roadblock when they discovered that the bacteria needed to run the system would take 18 months to mature. But Shumlich found a guy on Kijiji who was selling his home aquaponics system, and was willing to include the bacteria. “It was like a one-in-a-million chance,” he says. With a few supplies from Home Depot, and some koi off Kijiji, the first system was ready to go.

“Stuff grew crazy quick,” Shumlich says. And that’s when he had his a-ha moment. “I was in Safeway. I was buying organic produce, and I said ‘Why is everything grown in Mexico or California?’ It was really sh—y-looking produce. I’m growing this stuff in my backyard.” He’d found his new business.

The main problem with backyard aquaponics systems in Alberta is called winter. Shumlich and his friends found some greenhouse space at Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary, and spent the winter focusing on the nutrient balance and trying to integrate the fish and plants. But the winter sun wasn’t adequate for growing plants, and, what’s more, Shumlich was asked to leave the greenhouse because MRU didn’t have a fish licence. He and his crew moved to a friend’s greenhouse, which worked well until a cold snap and an unsealed door made them realize just how sensitive the system was to temperature fluctuations. It was a turning point. “I said, ‘We’re going completely indoors, and we’re using LEDs,’” Shumlich recalls.

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Raising fish alongside plants? "Water farmers" dive into aquaponics

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