An Aquaponics Farmer’s New Year’s Resolution

by Lexi Harder

1/26/18

Happy New Year, Ecocentric readers! The New Year may already be well underway, but I’m just now finalizing my aquaponics resolutions for the year. Maybe it’s because, as a farmer, it doesn’t feel like my year truly starts until the first crops are seeded in the spring. I did some thinking about what I should do; perhaps purchase only produce that I grow myself or buy from the farmers market? Stop eating meat? Figure out how to “go green” in some other aspect of my life?

In an ironic twist, I’ve chosen a resolution that will have me eschewing going anywhere near “green” for the next year. Let me explain. Close your eyes, and imagine an aquaponics farm. What do you see? Chances are, you see pristine, verdant rows of lettuce floating in a deep pool, or proud gem-green basil plants bathed under purple lights. Many, if not all, commercial aquaponics and hydroponics farms sell only leafy greens. New York City’s indoor soilless farms, Square Roots, Farm.One, Edenworks, Bowery Farming and Aerofarms all grow exclusively leafy greens or microgreens for market. At Oko Farms, we have resolved to leave the greens to other farmers, and grow a variety of crops in 2018, from tomatoes to rice to flowers.

To Make it in Agtech, Grow Greens

Why do these companies grow only leafy greens? The answer, as is the case in so many other questions, boils down to it being a matter of the economy. All of the farms I listed above are indoors, and can be categorized as “agtech” companies. A lot of new technology and energy goes into growing inside, where there is no natural sunlight, aeration, soil, or pest control. Leafy greens, with their uncomplicated and quick life cycles (lettuce can be grown to harvest in as little as three weeks) make a natural partner for the new frontier of indoor growing. Full-season, light and nutrient intensive fruiting crops, such as okra or even tomatoes prove a risky investment in case of a crop failure, and are expensive and difficult to grow in any case.

Competition with conventional soil farms must also be taken into consideration. Indoor hydroponic and aquaponic farms have a competitive edge against soil farming when it comes to greens. Urban-grown greens can be brought to local markets immediately after harvest, and sold at a premium to willing consumers. In contrast, most of the country’s soil grown leafy greens are shipped hundreds or even thousands of miles from California, to the detriment of flavor and freshness upon buying. While an indoor, hydroponic tomato cannot compete in price with a similar local tomato from the farmers’ market, indoor, local lettuce can definitely compete with wilted California greens, especially during the winter months.

Anything Is Possible in Aquaponics

That being said, there is a whole world of crops outside of leafy greens that you can grow in an aquaponics system. Oko Farms’ goal, and my goal as a farmer, is to experiment as much as possible with as many different types of crops as possible. Because we are an outdoor educational farm and don’t rely on produce sales to stay afloat, we have the freedom to branch out into uncharted territories. I’m also embarrassed to admit — I personally don’t like salad very much and find greens boring! From cucumbers to strawberries, we have had success with almost everything we have tried to grow in our aquaponics system. For example, last year we grew:

These bizarre onions, looking more like leeks from being constrained in plastic cups:

 

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This fat green luobo radish:

 

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Lemongrass, which we dried in our shed and now use for tea. Our trainee, Michael also made a delicious curry paste with it:

 

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Duborskian rice, an upland rice which we hulled by hand (an exhausting process) and then made into a delicious soup:

 

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This glossy red okra that reminded me of lipstick tubes:

 

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Lots of tomatoes! This one turned out to be a black vernissage tomato, ripening to a beautiful red-purple color:

 

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Teeny-tiny patio baby eggplants:

 

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Bush beans:

 

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Oko Farms isn’t the only place experimenting with the limits of aquaponics, and it seems as though you can grow almost anything – provided you give your plants adequate space. Murray Hallam in Australia has grown productive papaya trees in his aquaponics system, which ended up breaking under the weight of 43 kilos of fruit (almost 100 pounds)! AquaponicsUSA grew corn in their greenhouse system. And this charming Australian tells viewers how he grew passionfruit successfully in his back yard.

We are still in the process of writing the 2018 crop list, but I’m especially curious to see if we can grow potatoes successfully using aquaponics. We are also going to experiment with more varieties of rice. What would you be interested in seeing grown in an aquaponics system?

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