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Future Farming: How High Tech Aquaponics Makes Food Right

Aquaponics — The farms of the future are growing today. In a valley in the Virgin Islands, in a warehouse in Chicago, on a rooftop in Florida and a greenhouse in Milwaukee, history’s newest and most sustainable form of agriculture has broken out of its seed and has began to take root. In these farms of the future, you’ll find no waste water, no eroding soil and no harsh insecticides, but a mutually-balanced ecosystem that yields fast-growing organic produce– and the freshest, toxin-free fish money can buy. This is aquaponics, a high tech farming technology where vegetables and fish are grown in concert, a next generation symbiotic system that just might change the way we grow, harvest and eat the food of tomorrow.

The University of the Virgin Islands: The Birthplace of Aquaponics

After decades of scientific research, the team at the University of the Virgin Islands successfully grew fish and vegetables in a closed loop system that they ultimately called “Aquaponics”. Aquaponics is a hybrid technology including “aquaculture”, the raising of fish in a controlled system, and “hydroponics”, the farming of plants in a soil-free environment. Both techniques had survived for centuries before being merged, with hydroponics reaching back all the way to the hanging gardens of Babylon, where raised troughs of nutrient-rich water fed plants that hung and cascaded to the grounds below. Aquaculture is a newer technology, most commonly known as “fish farming”, where schools of fish are raised in controlled environments both in the seas and on land.

Both aquaculture and hydroponics produce toxic waste that ultimately harms the environment. In aquaculture, fish produce natural waste that is high in ammonia, resulting in water that must be discarded to maintain the health of the fish. In hydroponics, nutrient solutions degrade in quality and the waste water must be removed from the system or else it will harm the plants. When merged, aquaculture and hydroponics cancel out each other’s waste, providing a closed-loop system where the plants live off the fish waste and the fish live in water purified by the plants. In these aquaponic systems, humans can imitate the precise balance of nature to yield tons of fresh produce and healthy fish with very little effort.

Will Allen’s “Growing Power” Urban Farm, Milwaukee, WI

One of the champions of this new food movement is Will Allen, owner of the Growing Power urban farm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Allen has built a series of greenhouses that use aquaponic technology to raise 10,000+ lake perch and over a 1,000,000 pounds of produce every year. By using their own compost to heat the greenhouses, Growing Power runs year round, making them what might be the most productive year-round farm in the Midwest.

The secret to Growing Power, and many other aquaponic farms, is the vertical nature of their farming practice. Using multiple raised beds that stretch toward the roofs of each greenhouse, farmers can multiply the yield that traditional farmers could expect from a flat land investment. A single pump lifts the nutrient-rich water from the fish tanks to top level growing beds. This water feeds these plants and then cycles down to lower levels before falling back into the fish troughs below.

What makes Will Allen’s achievement so remarkable is that he has grown over 1,000,000 pounds of produce and 10,000 pounds of fish in just a few acres. It is an achievement that has inspired hobbyist and commercial growers alike, and has earned Allen a myriad of awards from some of the most prestigious grant organizations in the world. Allen has received a leadership grant from the Ford Foundation, a Genius Grant from the MacArthur Foundation and another from the Kellogg Foundation. In the world of aquaponics, this humble son of sharecroppers from South Carolina has risen to the most recognizable force in the world of future farming.

Growing Power Gallery

“The Plant” by John Edel, Chicago, IL

Not far from Growing Power in Milwaukee, another eco-entrepreneur has taken to the empty warehouses of Chicago’s meat-packing district to produce a new kind of edible product. Amidst a slew of slaughterhouses in every direction, John Edel and his company, “The Plant” yield pristine produce of the vegetative kind. Edel uses advanced LED grow lights to give life to his photosynthetic friends, lettuces and herbs grown in concert with fish. As in other aquaponic systems, fish waste in ammonia form is lifted throughout a series of plant beds, where naturally-occurring bacteria transform that ammonia into nitrites and then nitrates, a rich substance that feeds his produce.

Edel’s plan is to prove that empty warehouse space in cities around the world are ripe territory for future farming. Entrepreneurs like John can occupy this space and apply new age technology to farm vast amounts of food in limited space. Even with sunlight taken out of the equation, farmers can use aquaponic technology to raise produce and protein without breaking soil or wasting the water lost in traditional agriculture.

Green Sky Growers: The Future of Farming

Not far from Orlando, Florida, an organic orange farmer and a biologist with Epcot Center experience have teamed up to build the true farm of the future. On a rooftop above their city center, Green Sky Growers use aquaponics and vertical farming to grow massive yields of produce and fresh, healthy tilapia using less than 10% of the water needed for traditional farming. As much a science lab as a farm, this facility uses a software-controlled greenhouse that ventilates based on local temperature, rotating plant towers that soak up solution from fish tanks, and happy tilapia that consume plant waste to produce nutrient-rich water.

A myriad of vegetables grow in this greenhouse year-round, where lettuces, herbs, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and more grow in a hydroponic setting while aquaculture tanks complete a biological closed-loop. Every Saturday, their produce is made available at a farmer’s market on the streets below in Winter Garden, Florida, inviting interested foodies up for a tour of the facility. Technology is everywhere in this farm, but the plants it yields are as organic as can be. No pesticides, genetic modifiers or toxic waste occur in this new-aged farm. It is the perfect marriage of technology and nature, where the people who run it understand the delicate balance between sensible agriculture and sustainable business. Visitors to the Orlando area might find more inspiration and fun in this rooftop farm than they would at the area’s entertainment district, where Mickey and Minnie Mouse dominate the environment.

Green Sky Growers Gallery

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By and large, farming and agriculture are seen as the most low-tech of occupations and sciences. Yet in an increasingly globalized economy, these local forces are changing the way we grow, harvest and enjoy our food. The future of farming is growing today, in unlikely places where educated entrepreneurs are changing everything. What you eat tomorrow may come from a farm like one of these. If you’re interested in learning more, leave a comment below or hit the links above to these revolutionary farms of tomorrow.