Vertical Farming 102 – Aquaponic Farming

Vertical Farm 102.3 2 (1)

Are you ready for part 3 of our Vertical Farming 102 mini-series? If you didn’t catch the last one, make a quick pit-stop there first, it’d be helpful for you. Check out Vertical Farming 102—Hydroponic Farming here! Alright, now you’re ready to jump in and swim with the fish!

Perhaps my personal favorite method of Vertical Farming and Controlled Environment Agriculture “CEA,” Aquaponic farming is essentially a hybrid method of Aquaculture and Hydroponics. We already discussed Hydroponics in greater depth on Wednesday, so let’s touch on Aquaculture. Aquaculture (or Aquafarming), is the controlled cultivation of aquatic organisms such as fish, crustaceans, mollusks, algae, and other organisms such as aquatic plants. Imagine a home aquarium, on a larger scale. Since we’re talking about the hybrid between Aquaculture and Hydroponics, we’ll be narrowing our use of Aquaculture to cultivation of fish.

A soilless method of farming, using this method of CEA, a farmer can take advantage of the opportunity to grow up to 8 times the amount of food per acre vs. traditional farming techniques! Other advantages include lower requirements of the following: water—usually around 1/6 of normal usage, land, and, since this method more heavily relies on modern technology, labor. Whereas other methods of CEA discussed in the Vertical Farming 102 course focus strictly on producing crops, Aquaponics takes it a step further with the inclusion of Aquaculture. While crops are cultivated in a sustainable and nutritious manner, so too are fish, providing an additional food source, which the other two means cannot adequately compete with due to their narrow concentration on plant crops.

Although an ancient farming method, as with other CEA techniques, the Aquaponic industry is growing rapidly, with North America responsible for the greatest expected CAGR over 2021-2026, as farmers increasingly realize the opportunity to provide high-quality, locally-grown fresh produce to meet consumers’ demand. Despite the exponential growth rate though, the scalability of this type of farming is often questioned, but let’s take a step back and think about what exactly Aquaponic farming entails. Farmers merely copy and paste the natural processes found in every lake, pond, river, or other bodies of water, replicating them in a controlled environment, to enhance crop growth. Would you rather recreate a full ecosystem allowing you to produce otherwise unavailable food sources with the addition of fish harvests, or focus specifically on produce crops? There’s no right or wrong answer, it only depends on your goals.

While the Hydroponic method is a major contributor, Aquaponic farming eliminates many of the inputs that would typically be required using that method. Farmers utilizing Aquaponics no longer have the issue of managing the required nutrients for crop growth, as they are provided by the symbiotic relationship of the living components in the ecosystem. However, if you wish to achieve the ideal result using this technique, it is imperative that the fish are fed a well-balanced, proper diet. Additionally, Aquaponic farming works best when both the crops and the fish have the same optimal pH requirements, otherwise you may experience a continual uphill battle.

Now that we know the background, let’s spend a few minutes on how to set up your Aquaponic system! While relatively simple, without proper preparation, you’ll never achieve your goal. Let’s get started with some necessities, shall we?

Parts of your Aquaponic Farming Setup

Let’s briefly mention the different tanks involved in your Aquaponic setup.

Rearing Tank: The rearing tank is your vessel to raise and feed the fish

Settling Basin: Your settling basin catches any uneaten food or other fine particles prior to entering the biofilter.

Biofilter: It is in this part of your setup that nitrification occurs. What’s nitrification you ask? Don’t worry, just keep swimming, you’ll be an expert soon!

Sump: You’ll find the sump, much like in the basement of your home, is at the bottom and allows water to move between the multiple tanks.

Growing Systems

We’ll only discuss one method of Aquaponic farming today. While there are others, such as Nutrient Film Technique “NFT,” and Media-Based Aquaponics, we’ll touch on the best system for commercial farming. If you’d like to do some research for your home setup, I suggest researching Media-Based Aquaponics.

Raft or Deep Water Culture: If you recall I mentioned plant rafts earlier. Deep Water Culture is where those come into play! If you’re considering commercial Aquaponic farming, this is the kickball field you’re playing in! In this method the crops are suspended from a raft, usually made of foam, with their submerged roots purifying the water. The purified water then flows to the fish tank, where it is soiled. Nitrification follows in the Biofilter. From there, water gets pumped back to the crop growing area for the absorption of nitrates while repurifying and recycling the water. Rinse and repeat!

Live Workings of your Aquaponics System

When operating an Aquaponic farm, you are creating an entire ecosystem, allowing for plant growth. This requires three vital living organisms to keep your system running optimally. We’ve briefly touched on them already earlier; do you recall what they were?

Plants: If it wasn’t for the crops, we wouldn’t even be discussing this process, right? Growing crops, while the ultimate result, is what allows the whole system to work. Without your crops’ roots in the water, there would be no viable means of absorbing the nitrates and further purifying ammonia from the water. Without purified water, the fish would perish, and with no waste from the fish to feed on, the bacteria would all die off! Thus, without the crops, there would be no method! What came first, the chicken or the egg?

Fish: Fish provide the required nutrients for crop cultivation in Aquaponic farming. This is because waste gets converted into nutrients the plants need. As for the fish, due to their ability to withstand elevated population density, and quick growth cycles, the best choices consist of the following.

- Tilapia
– Catfish
– Trout
– Carp
– Perch

Bacteria: Without bacteria, there is no nitrification. Without nitrification, there are no nutrients for the crops to absorb. Make sense? What exactly happens during nitrification? Great question, and we’ll touch on that right now! Fish waste and excretions contain ammonia, which is released into the water. Two types of bacteria, Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter, then work in combination to create the vital nutrients for the plants. Ammonia from the waste is converted into nitrites by Nitrosomonas, which are then converted into nitrates by the Nitrobacter. The nitrates subsequently get absorbed by the plants’ roots, facilitating growth and production. Remember when Elton John once sang a song about the circle of life? There it is right there!

Now that you have a basic understanding of how Aquaponic farming, you can make your decision on whether to convert your current Hydroponic setup into an Aquaponic system and gain the ability to harvest proteins or not. Ready to do it? Grab your plant rafts and some fish, and get growing! I encourage you, if you’ve been enjoying this little series, to take some time over our break and look deeper into these techniques. There’ a hefty amount of available information about it, so invest some time into further research if you plan to try your hand with it. While you’re still here, let me know your thoughts below and join me again Monday, November 28, to continue our journey into the world of Aeroponic farming!

A happy reminder, we’ll be taking a week-long break for the holiday. With that, I’d like to take a moment and say, from our families to yours, we hope you have a truly blessed and wonderful Thanksgiving!

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