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Innovative Agriculture: AquaGrow Farms Spotlight

Over the last couple of weeks, Alex from Halton Environmental Network connected with The Mississauga Food Bank to learn more about their AquaGrow Farms, the first aquaponic food bank in Canada. The following blog is an interview with Emily Connors, the AquaGrow Farms Coordinator, illustrating everything you need to know about aquaponics. 

What is aquaponics?

Aquaponics is an ancient agricultural technique that  has recently gained serious momentum in the last half century. It is both innovative and eco-conscious in that it uses 95% less water than traditional techniques. Functionally, aquaponics is a closed, artificial ecosystem that incorporates the strengths of aquaculture, or fish farming, and hydroponics, which is soil-less agriculture. In this system, cultivated fish are fed a high protein diet. Their ammonia-rich waste is then broken down and converted to usable fertilizer by specialized nitrifying bacteria. Plants then use these nutrients to grow, simultaneously cleaning the water, which then is cycled back to the fish, free of toxic ammonia. Nitrification, a natural biochemical cycle, drives the ecosystem and eliminates the need for chemical input, which means the cycle runs organically! 

Introducing AquaGrow Farms! What was the reason behind starting it?

The Mississauga Food Bank’s vision is a Mississauga where no one goes hungry. AquaGrow Farms was created at The Mississauga Food Bank as a means to provide hungry neighbours with fresh, healthy produce and protein. With a program like AquaGrow Farms, we’re able to provide clients nutritious food that is grown year round and distributed through our network of 50+ agencies across the city. 

The farm is nestled in our warehouse and is roughly 800 ft2. It operates year round producing Tilapia and an assortment of fresh, nutritious vegetables. It is considered a highly versatile grow method, because it can be established in virtually any space. This means that fresh food can be produced locally, even in the busiest cities where green space is limited. We hope that by leading through example, we can create a lasting trend of upcycling industrial space to create green spaces in cities where traditional methods would otherwise not be possible.

What produce are you currently growing? What is the easiest to grow from aquaponics?

Currently, we cultivate two categories of produce. From our Deep Water Culture Tanks (D.W.C.), we grow Rainbow, Red and Pink Swiss Chard, Bok Choy, Spinach, Kale, Red Cabbage, Lettuce and Kohlrabi. From the newly improved microgreens program, we cultivate Pea Shoots, Wheatgrass, Red Cabbage, Red Daikon Radish, Broccoli and Sunflower microgreens.

The crops that thrive in this environment are typically leafy greens and herbaceous plants. So far, we have had the most success with Swiss Chard, Bok Choy and Lettuce in our D.W.C. tanks. These plants reach their harvest size in the least amount of time, with fairly consistent results each week. Other produce takes longer to grow, but typically with a higher nutrient payoff.

How much produce and fish do you harvest each year?

This year, our projected yield is roughly 1100 servings of Tilapia, and 35 000 servings of fresh greens – a marked 10 000 serving increase from last year’s crop yield. The pandemic has provided us with the opportunity to build a robust microgreens program, accounting for nearly 15 000 servings of the fresh produce in this year’s projections.

In what ways is your farm sustainable? Is it more sustainable than standard agriculture?

For centuries, aquaponics has been a proven and efficient method to cultivate organic vegetable crops and fish protein. The same water is constantly cycled through the system, with only 5% lost to evaporation. This technique effectively uses 95% less water than traditional techniques, which makes it a highly sustainable agricultural method, relative to traditional soil-based techniques.

Due to the aforementioned versatility of aquaponics farming, operations can be set up in virtually any space, including busy urban areas and industrial towns. Upcycling unused industrial spaces will help to create fully functioning commercial level farms in urban areas, which greatly reduces food mileage and fuel expenditure on a local level.

One final noteworthy strength of aquaponics is its capacity for total organic production. Since waste material is recycled into usable fertilizer, there is zero chemical input and zero chemical runoff. Natural biochemical processes keep the ecosystem thriving, with minimal maintenance and zero chemical intervention. Resulting crops are fresh tasting, nutrient dense and free of harmful chemical residues.

Is aquaponics the future of farming? 

When thinking about the challenge of sustainable agriculture, there is no single solution. Aquaponics resolves a lot of issues faced by its component farming techniques, namely aquaculture and hydroponics, but should not be solely considered the future of sustainable farming. As with any technique, there are drawbacks that must be considered.

One setback being the limited variety of crops that thrive in this environment; not all vegetables are tolerant of constant water exposure, near-neutral pH range and variable temperatures specific to the aquaponics system. Typically, only hydrophytes will thrive in this environment, which imparts a bottleneck on the crop variety to leafy greens and herbaceous plants. But, despite existing limitations with regards to fish and crop choice, aquaponics should still be considered one of many innovative solutions, especially in comparison to other outdated, wasteful farming methods. This technique uses only a fraction of the water of soil-farming and can be done entirely organically, with zero chemical runoff. 

Are people able to incorporate similar techniques at home? If so, how?

With a small investment in material costs, anyone can set up a fully functioning home aquaponics system! It’s a brilliant way to provide year-round access to fresh vegetables and fish for the family. With minimal maintenance, the at-home system will generate a positive return in just a few months, with lasting turnover year-round.

Depending on the size of the home growing area and the chosen design, the following would be the main components of the small-scale system: (1) fish tank; (2) fish; (3) mineralization tank, where nitrification occurs; (4) media bed, where vegetables grow; (5) pump, which cycles water through the system; (6) heater or chiller, depending on ambient temperature. The final and most important component to a successful at-home aquaponics system is research! Knowledge about the system and its main components is the best way to avoid potential issues and capitalize on crop return.

A big thank you to Emily and Daisy from the AquaGrow farms team, and the Mississauga Food Bank, for this interview and for the efforts in creating a food secure community. If you are looking to learn more about their program, visit https://aquagrowfarms.ca/

All photos are credited to The Mississauga Food Bank.

Instagram & Facebook: @themississaugafoodbank

Twitter: @Food_Bank

Contributed by Alex Blundell, Community Garden Assistant

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