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Behind the Scenes at Aqua Vita Farms, Growing Aquaponic Fish and Produce in Sherrill, NY

[Photographs: Max Falkowitz]

You probably already know about aquaculture: the domestication of fish for food in enclosed spaces. And you may have had hydroponic produce: plants like lettuce grown in water instead of soil under controlled conditions. But how about aquaponics?

Put simply, aquaponic agriculture combines fish-based aquaculture with plant-based hydroponics in a closed system, where the waste products of one process become food for the other, all contained in a climate-controlled environment that allows farmers to adjust nearly every environmental variable that they want.

Aquaponics isn't just a way to grow fish and produce independent of climate. It's an efficient, low-waste agricultural system, and as chief farmer Mark Doherty of Aqua Vita Farms (one of the few wholesale aquaponics farms in the U.S.) puts it, it could be part of our efforts to feed a rapidly growing population with increasingly scarce resources.

Traditionally, both aquaculture and hydroponics generate serious waste. Packing fish together in small tanks or ponds pumps phosphorous, magnesium, and ammonia into the water supply, along with organic waste sludge that's toxic to fish in large quantities (which is why farm-grown fish is treated with antibiotics). Hydroponically grown plants need chemical fertilizers to enrich their water environments, which isn't in the spirit of the whole "use less petroleum" endeavor.

Aquaponics in a Nutshell

A model of the aquaponic system: plants feeding fish feeding plants.

But to the right plant, fish waste is the perfect fertilizer, or at least it becomes one when filtered and broken down by bacteria that the farmer cultivates. At Aqua Vita, tilapia live in large tanks. Their waste is siphoned off and broken down by bacteria in substrates, and then pumped into continually circulating pools to feed the plants' root systems. As the plants produce their own waste, the water drifts by gravity back towards the fish tanks, where it feeds the fish. Continuous circulation means the water can be constantly recycled, and the fertilization feedback loop means that the farmer doesn't have to add many resources to the system.

That doesn't mean aquaponic farming is easy. Aqua Vita is essentially an environment in a box, where the farmer plays the role of nature. Mark and his team regulate temperature, humidity, light quantity and color, water pH, and a dozen other variables to keep their plants thriving. And if just one of those variables gets thrown out of whack, they have to move quickly to compensate.

But that burden of control means that Aqua Vita can customize their system however they like. Since plant life cycles are largely determined by environmental cues, the aquaponic farmer can induce growth, spawning, or any other behavior by changing a variable like light, heat, or nitrogen production (for the last, just add more fish). This allows Aqua Vita to grow produce completely independent of the weather outside. And with such tight controls on the ecosystem, the plants don't require pesticides to stay healthy; a cocktail of friendly insects like ladybugs keep the system pest-free.

Siphon

Both the plants and fish have short life cycles (lettuce can be harvested in less than a month), so Aqua Vita can change its whole inventory on a few weeks' notice, allowing them to fulfill specialty orders for chefs or react to a changing market. Aqua Vita grows lettuces and tilapia, which they've balanced to make for a system in equilibrium. But for Mark that's just the beginning for the field. "You can get anything to grow with the right style of system. I've seen someone grow pineapples this way."

There's another big draw to aquaponic farming: it's way more efficient than traditional agriculture, as well as aquaculture or hydroponics alone. Compared to traditional farming, Mark uses 90% less water for twice the yield of lettuce. His fertilizer costs are zero. He can raise large volumes of fish safely since their water is filtered so effectively.

Of course the farm still uses power: those lights are on all the time, as is the climate control system. But beyond those inputs, Aqua Vita's effect on the environment is relatively small.

Environmental impact is a topic that Mark fast took to heart. "I got into this by looking at my daughter, and thinking that if we didn't do something to change the way we farm, our children are going to run out of food. There's been a lot of progress, but unless we invest private dollars into these ideas we won't move fast enough."

20121202-taylor-cook-tilapia.jpg

Tilapia at The Tailor and The Cook in Utica, NY.

Aqua Vita currently sells most of its produce to restaurants in central New York, but they've just started selling lettuce mix through the NYC Greenmarket's wholesale program to select restaurants like M. Wells Dinette. Which raises another question: how does the food taste? I got to try some of Aqua Vita's tilapia at The Tailor and the Cook in nearby Utica, and it was the first fish of its kind that delighted me to eat it. Aqua Vita's fish may be farm-raised, but it's the most flavorful, cleanest-tasting tilapia I've had anywhere.

Aqua Vita is still a young operation. It launched just in May 2011, and Mark and his team, who are largely self-taught, are still making improvements. "Nobody's got it absolutely figured out. We're still learning." He's optimistic about the future of the company in spite of the naysayers and conservative bank loan officers who didn't believe that upstate New York could support a farm like this.

To Mark, the case is straightforward. "We have so many good things going for us here. We have a great community, incredible infrastructure, a great immigrant population, all these people doing great things for us. We have a government that's been good to small business. There's a vibrant food scene here, and we're all moving together."

Take a look at the farm in the slideshow »

About the author: Max Falkowitz is the editor of Serious Eats: New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @maxfalkowitz.

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