The Garden of the Future?
Old Man Winter is clearly drunk off his gourd. The weather in central Massachusetts is oscillating between frigid+sunny and unseasonably warm+raining, with a little snow, ice, slush, and fog tossed in. On the plus side, all my seeds for the 2019 Food It Yourself garden have arrived. In just a few weeks I will be starting seedlings. In the mean time, Mr. Food It Yourself and I have been experimenting with a new way to grow things. It involves no soil, works really well indoors, and might be the future of agriculture. We’re dabbling in aquaponics.
In case you are not familiar with the terms, hydroponic growing uses nutrient-enhanced water instead of soil to grow plants. I could tell you all about it, but you’ll probably have more fun watching this awesome clip from the TV show ‘How It’s Made’ about hydroponic lettuce. Aquaponics adds water-dwelling animals into the system. In a “true” aquaponic set up, the fish/shrimp/snails/etc. would be intended for consumption along with the vegetables they support. In the Food It Yourself house, we’re just using the aquariums (aquaria?) that we use for pretty fish.
Here are some fishes, a peacock gudgeon and a pea puffer to be precise. They are not only amusing the cat with their swimming around and being lovely, they are producing fertilizer for lettuce and spinach seeds.
See the little sprout? That is a spinach.
Here’s an easier-to-see diagram. The big blue box is the aquarium with fish living in it. The fish poop and water get sucked up by a lift pump (the small black box) and moved to a bucket full of hydroponic media where the plants are planted. They absorb the fertilizer and water. The excess is returned to the tank.
Here is a pepper seedling growing out of the 110 gallon tank in the living room. The medium (the red balls) is a substance sold as “hydroton”; it is little spheres of porous ceramic. The fluffy stuff that the pepper sprout is planted in is a little block of “rock wool”, a substance similar to fiberglass. Yes, there is an initial investment in a hydroponic or aquaponic system. Be aware of that if you want to try this at home. As you can see by the lavender tint in the above photo, you will need not only an aquarium set up, lift pump, and hydroponic medium, but some also a grow light and the electricity to keep it on.
The concept of aquaponic farming is actually very very old. Using fish to fertilize rice paddies is a traditional practice in China. Believe it or not, the USDA has a sizeable number of resources regarding this topic. Is it the food-producing wave of the future? Ummm, reply hazy, ask again later.
- Farming Method, a pro-agriculture but poorly translated site has a good pro/con page on the topic.
- Sustainable Foods in Urban Communities offers this pro/con list regarding aquaponics and feeding our modern cities.
- This 2015 NPR article addresses the issue, also.
As you can see, there are many factors at play. Hydroponic/aquaponic farms have the potential to put the food right where it is needed- in the inner city. However, they are not immune to the challenges facing traditional dirt-based farms. There is also the investment of materials and energy that must be considered. As with many elements of the food supply this is a complicated issue.
Humanity may never stop planting seeds in dirt. In the future, we may grow more stuff in water alone. For now, Mr. Food It Yourself and I are having fun exploring this new old fashioned way of getting home grown veggies into our DIYet. We already have the equipment, the aquatic creatures, and the water circulating, so why not make it work for us? What do you think the future of farming will be? Share your opinions and ideas in the comments!