The farm of the future is growing today in an unlikely place– on the roof of a retail building in a sleepy suburb near Orlando, Florida. Green Sky Growers is a true technical marvel, a state of the art farm which is one part laboratory and one part organic garden. It raises thousands of pounds of fish and vegetables every year using a mutually-beneficial farming technique called aquaponics. Green Sky Growers raises everything from tilapia to perch, herbs to tomatoes, delivering them fresh to the public and a hungry group of local restaurateurs. If you enjoy a dish of striped bass and leafy greens at the restaurant below, you may have no idea that the ingredients were sourced from 50 feet above.
Green Sky Growers is one of many commercial, non-profit and hobby farmers who have turned to aquaponics to increase their yields and lower their resource needs. Aquaponics is the combined raising of fish and vegetables in a mutually-beneficial, closed-loop system. It is a combination of “aquaculture”, the farming of fish, and “hydroponics”, the raising of vegetables in a soil-free, nutrient-rich water solution. On its own, aquaculture can create toxic waste water which cannot be reused and must be discarded. In hydroponics, spent nutrient solution can also be toxic. With aquaponics, the fish waste is naturally transformed from ammonia into nitrates which becomes plant food. In this process, the plants filter the water and strip the toxic ammonia to provide clean water for the fish. It’s a best of both worlds system, a genuine ecosystem where the plants and fish form a symbiotic relationship as managed by the farm’s team.
What makes Green Sky Growers different from your average farm is their focus on state-of-the-art technology. Their two combined greenhouses are managed by custom software that measures environmental conditions and adjusts the conditions inside. On breezy, warm mornings, the greenhouse software will open the wall shutters to allow breezes through and to keep the inside temperature in a healthy range. Once the mid-day sun heats the greenhouse toward suboptimal temperatures, the software opens a shade system which covers the glass roof above. If temperatures rise above manageable levels, chillers will lower the water temperature to keep the fish healthy. Everything is automated– the software system has a temperature goal and will automatically adjust a range of variables to maintain that temperature indoors.
The fish are everywhere at Green Sky Growers. There are five main tanks which house hundreds of fish per tank. During our visit, there were three tanks of tilapia, one tank of striped bass and a fifth tank in preparation for the arrival of perch fingerlings. The tanks are massive, and the fish within them are happy. An automated feeder drops feed into each tank at regular intervals. While the fish do congregate near the windows during feedings, they have space to roam and they are free from predators throughout their growth cycle.
The hydroponic growing systems at Green Sky Growers range across a few different disciplines. Rows and rows of Nutrient Film Technique systems raise big, leafy and blemish-free basil and lettuces in nearly half the growing time of traditional soil farming. The spinning aeroponic towers, shown above, spray the plant roots with nitrate-rich water that gives the plants what they need to grow green and bear fruit. They rotate, slowly, allowing for even sun for all plants throughout the day. After the water passes through the “NFT” systems and the aeroponic towers, that water is now plant-purified and ready to be pumped back into the fish tanks.
As you can imagine, a farm like this requires a financial commitment and a whole lot of expertise. The farm is owned by an aquaculture/hydroponics resource provider called Aquatic Eco-Systems located in nearby Apopka, Florida. The farm is managed by staff biologist Ryan, shown above, who has been raising fish and farming since an early age. An understanding of fish farming, hydroponics and greenhouse management is required for this kind of operation. There are low-tech aquaponics farms that make do without the resources of Green Sky Growers. This farm, by contrast, is a laboratory in nature, a test garden where the next generation of aquaculture and hydroponic technologies are proven before trickling down to the commercial industry.
At first glance, it may seem strange that such advancements in farming technology are happening in a small town near Orlando, Florida. If you examine it closer, the soil here is just right– figuratively speaking. The year-round warmth and ubiquitous sun provide for a nearly constant opportunity for commercial farming. Yet soil farming is troubled with low nutrients and plenty of pests, which drives a need for harsh chemicals to be used before and during the growing process. Green Sky Growers is exploring new ground by contrast. By using available roof space, by ditching the soil and avoiding the waste water of hydroponics and aquaculture, Green Sky Growers is feeding a lot of people without leaving a footprint. Here’s to hoping the farm of the future looks a lot like this one.
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