Last week, a small cadre of my co-workers and I visited an aquaponics facility in Montello, Wis., to learn more about this intriguing way to grow food. The types of food involved are fish and plants: walleye and tilapia, and just about any type of veggie one can imagine. This alone would be cool, but what’s even more notable is that the water used in the system is recirculated and reused, thanks to the wonders of bacteria and a specialized filter system.
The facility we visited housed joint operations by Nelson and Pade Inc. and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Nelson and Pade sells aquaponics systems commercially, along with the fishy and veggie fruits of their labor. UW-Stevens Point conducts research into new aquaponics methods.
How does aquaponics work? Basically, the fish are grown in aquaculture tanks. The resulting nutrient-rich water from the tanks is filtered through several systems and pumped into plant-growing systems. The plants grow in their own individual base of porous rockwool atop the water in floating platforms. No soil is needed. The plants receive enough nutrients and natural fertilizer from the fish water to grow. The used plant water is then filtered again and recirculated back into the aquaculture tanks.
The goal with aquaponics is to provide a sustainable system for growing high-quality food. Pesticides aren’t used on the plants for fear they will contaminate the water and hurt the fish. Instead, natural methods are used like mites that eat pests.
The systems don’t take up much space or use much water after the first set-up, and they produce high volumes of food: ten pounds of plants for every one pound of fish. People can purchase systems small enough to fit in a home or classroom, to those large enough for family farms. My guess is that anyone able to keep fish alive in a home aquarium would be able to do the same thing in an aquaponics system. Sure, the aquarium in this case is a bit more expensive, but the concepts are the same.
To round out the tour, our group ate at a local café where aquaponics lettuce was used in a tasty strawberry walnut salad. It was super good. If you ever get the chance to tour such a facility or eat aquaponics-produced food, go for it!