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Sustainable Table: Aquaponics

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NEAR WIMER, Ore. – If you’ve heard of aquaponics, you’re ahead of most Americans. If you know how it works, you’re really on the ball, and if you’ve bought produce from The Farming Fish outside Wimer, then you might have bought it from the largest aquaponic farm in the entire country.

From hard work on the organic farm, to answering questions at the Growers and Crafters Market, partners Coyote, Michael and Olivia are dedicated to growing quality food.

“It starts a lot of conversations,” Oliva explained. “We grow a little bit of everything on our farm. Aquaponics is our center piece, so we grow a lot of aquaponic lettuce, herbs and now our aquaponic tilapia fish.”

From years of research, to finding just the right land in Southern Oregon, the farming fish has quite the story to tell, centered around aquaponics.

“It’s the marriage of auquaculture,” explained Michael. “Raising fish for food with hydroponics, which is raising produce or plants in water. So, when you combine those two, you have aquaponics.”

The fish are tilapia; the fish are raised in rotation in six tanks. September was the first month of harvest. The fish eat the green waste, then produce waste of their own. Beneficial bacteria convert that into a food, or fertilizer, for the plants. The lettuce, basil and everything else in the greenhouse floats on gallons of water, allowing the plants to maintain as much nutrients as possible.

“Once you cut that plant, or kill that plant, it starts to degrade and decay and with that what you’re loosing is nutritional value,” Michael said.

Nothing is wasted on the farm. The practice of aquaponics conserves water, soil and space, making it more efficient than traditional production. Michael says 1 square foot of water in his tanks can produce 35,000 pounds of fillets in a year, compared to just 75 pounds of grass feed beef per square foot of grazing land. Of course for all its benefits, there are limitations.

“Not everything is designed to be grown in a system like this,” Michael said. “For instance, those sweet potatoes we were harvesting before, I would never dream of trying to grow those right in the water.”

While The Farming Fish, in just its second year, is likely the biggest commercial aquaponic production in the country, a couple hundred dollars will get you started in your own backyard.

“You could do this on any scale pretty much anywhere and its efficiency is just great,” Michael said. The sustainability on this farm doesn’t stop at the greenhouse, neither does the hard work.

“Like everything we do here it’s by hand, or with very small equipment,” said Michael. “So this is the kind of work that we go through to bring this fresh produce to you. This is the quality that you are getting; this is the local difference.”

From the layout, to the watering, to the tools used, the farming fish is digging in new ground and it’s beginning to pay off.