Ever want to grow your own veggies and protein source, while saving water at the same time? There’s an ancient permaculture method whereby you can do all of it at once: Aquaponics. A resurgent trend that is getting bigger – by getting smaller. After researching some large-scale aquaponics operations specializing in growing fish and vegetables for restaurants around the country, we were inspired to seek out something smaller and more manageable for the urban homestead. We met Anne Phillip about a year ago at her aquaponics project in the backyard of a home in Southeast Portland, Oregon. Anne’s set-up, Mobius Microfarms, started in a small 10 X 10 greenhouse, with three table-height trays hosting the rocks and vegetation stationed over their counterpart fish tanks – which were halved-55 gallon drums partially sunken into the earth. A series of tubes for water connected the tanks to the trays, with small fish tank pumps attached (these could also be run by solar panels, but in this case, they were plugged into the grid). “It’s self-regulating … I could never grow plants before, I always wanted to be a gardener and this made it so much easier.”
The concept of aquaponics is thousands of years old and quickly becoming mainstream again. The concept is a perfect microcosm to illustrate the principles of permaculture – that which is most sustainable and beneficial to us is found in the model of nature itself, mimicking the cycle of life, from birth to completion and rebirth. The fish expel waste into the water, which is pumped up to the grow bed. This waste settles in the surface where the plants are seeded among rocks (or in a more intensive operation, soil.) There, the ammonia is turned naturally into nitrates for the plant growth. Simply put; the fish provide the fertilizer for the plants (in this case, edible vegetation, herbs and the like) and the plants filter and oxygenate the water to make it more habitable for the fish, then the fish eat either waste vegetation from the gardens or simple food pellets. A perfect circle (or a perfect Mobius strip of continuing, delicious, sustainable symbiosis, if you will… and you should)! “The idea is really old, but people have been trying to adapt it for our modern industrial lifestyle,” Anne said. The system Anne started uses 90 percent less water than if the garden was growing in a traditional soil bed; and the plants grow twice as fast. “It’s great for cities, for urban living,” she said. Anne added some small heaters during the winter but relies mostly on a small hoop house/greenhouse. Her fish require about 65 degrees, trout work well in cooler climates, and Tilapia will thrive in 75 to 80 degree water. She uses about $10 of electricity a month (in summer, close to nothing). Monitoring the pH acidity levels appeared to be the most complex part of running the aquaponic system.
Fish that can be pretty easily raised include rainbow trout, catfish and freshwater prawns. Anne said out of the three 55-gallon tank-tray set ups she has, there is far more produce coming out of the system than she herself can consume. “I learned all of this (by) doing it from scratch. It’s been awesome.” Nowadays, Anne is making automated indoor aquaponic systems for people to easily grow nutrient-dense food year-round! Her new company, Mobius Microfarms, provides small, attractive, indoor aquaponics systems — One of which was recently installed at one of our favorite Portland restaurants, Tabla, where they have integrated house-grown microgreens into their menu.
Microgreens have up to 40 times more nutrition since they are harvested when young and only several inches tall, Anne said. Studies have shown that certain microgreens may be able to aid in ridding the air of pollutants while they grow, as well as detoxifying our bodies by naturally helping to expel harmful chemicals when they are eaten. These microfarms could encourage a dramatic rise in healthy, self-sufficient, home-grown food operations and have an incredible impact on the way we eat in this country. On a larger scale, the right aquaponics setup on less than a half acre of land could feed an entire neighborhood all of its protein and veggies at a dramatically reduced cost to the wallet and environment compared to conventional grocery shopping. Something to think about as more people begin to see the benefits of eating locally.