Aquaponics emerging as an urban food solution
By Mason Walker, Sustainable Business Oregon
Mason Walker is the associate editor of Sustainable Business Oregon. Click through to see an educational gallery about acquaponics in action.
In January this year I wrote a blog post searching for ambitious urban agriculture projects in Oregon. While I learned of several formative groups looking for resources to get started, no operating businesses emerged.
Six months later a handful of innovative, but rural, commercial-scale projects had surfaced — groups like Community by Design and the Farmland LP fund that are employing clever methods for jumpstarting the cultivation of underutilized land in the fertile Willamette Valley.
Then in mid-June we reported on a farm in southern Oregon using aquaponics to grow their business. Aquaponics — a food-growing method that combines aquaculture (fish farming) with hydroponic plant production — has been gaining steam thanks to efficiencies inherent with closed-loop systems. In search of urban applications, I came across Portland Purple Water, a company that designs and sells rainwater catchment systems.
Purple Water founder Jason Garvey's aquaponics journey began when researching agricultural water efficiency solutions for the Oregon Environmental Council and the Oregon Sustainable Agricultural Land Trust. Garvey discovered that even well-designed irrigation systems were wasting a ton of water — his catchment technology wouldn't be able to make a meaningful impact. Frustrated with his findings, Garvey searched for methods of food production that could be helped by rain catchment.
|See an aquaponics system in action >>|
"Modern industrial farming is broken," said Garvey. He and business partner Scott Yelton have been holding aquaponics workshops in Portland since the start of the year. Their mission is to empower people to grow their own food and demonstrate the efficacy of raising protein in a backyard. Garvey is sold on the science, too.
"I saw the data [from other aquaponics projects] and was convinced," he said.
To speed up aquaponics development in Portland, Purple Water is running a Kickstarter campaign to build a commercial-scale facility in a brownfield under the St. Johns Bridge in North Portland. Garvey envisions a 'living laboratory' that can offer education, research and bring aquaponics-grown produce to market.
There are plenty of roadblocks though.
The prospects for commercial aquaponics in Oregon are still a bit murky. Aquaculture is illegal in most cities due to the threat of fish escaping into municipal water systems. Aquaponics currently sits in a gray area of these laws — while the produce piece is defined, selling the fish is another story.
Ann and Neal Forsthoefel are taking their own swing at aquaponics in Portland and understand the policy hurdles well. Ann has worked in agriculture her entire life, including stints on a self-sufficient permaculture farm, with a countertop-hydroponic-system company and, most recently, as the executive director of the Portland Farmers Market until moving to Montana in 2011.
After returning to Portland from a national tour of some of the best aquaponics systems, the Forsthoefels are ironing out the details of a neighborhood aquaponics business. Ann is working with local lawmakers to straighten out how the fish can be handled. Despite the illegality of selling fish grown in aquaculture systems, Neal indicates that work-arounds may exist. Value-added products such as smoked fish could work and selling live fish such as koi is an option. Working with tribes that have law exemptions is also a possibility.
If the policy doesn't move in their direction, Neal points out that 80 to 85 percent of anticipated revenues in most aquaponics business plans are from the sale of produce, with only 15 to 20 percent banking on the sale of fish. They plan to move forward, with or without firm policy in place.
Though only briefly immersed in the concept, it's hard to not jump on the aquaponics bandwagon.
Ann, however, is quick to warn against the tendency to target a single approach as the solution to all of our food issues. She sees aquaponics as one part of a larger food system.
When asked if he'll move forward with the Purple Water project if the Kickstarter campaign fails, Garvey answered definitively: "No question about it. We're trying to build momentum around an ideology we believe in."
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