Aquaponics is an integrated and balanced agricultural system that brings together the concepts of hydroponics and aquaculture. The by-product of one species is used to grow another, mimicking a natural ecosystem. Aquaponics has been around since people have farmed in wetlands and corralled fish into near-shore pens. The methods were crude and straightforward, by today’s standards, but were effective at feeding a population. Over the last few decades, a renewed interest in other forms of agriculture has propelled aquaponics into the modern farming age.
The primary challenge of the modern aquaponics industry was to define a working model. The model system originated at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) in the 1980s by Dr. James Rakocy, considered to be the father of commercial aquaponics. The system developed at UVI adapted the ancient technique and showed that the use of prefabricated parts and a lot of electricity could produce much more food than soil-based agriculture. Rakocy’s early work showed aquaponic farming to be 10 times more productive than traditional soil agriculture while using 97% less water.
Aquaponics produces less waste than hydroponics because there is little salt build-up, a phenomenon that occurs after repeated nutrient additions in hydroponic systems. This prevents the need to flush the system and dispose of the salty water that occurs with hydroponics and it also reduces the reliance on mined minerals. Rakocy’s work also revealed that more research was needed to define plant nutrition concerning fish culture. A biochemistry professor and aquaculture guru in Hawaii named Dr. Harry Ako was conducting research for farmers in the Pacific Islands, specifically focused on aquaponics. In 2010, Dr. Ako followed in the footsteps of Dr. Rakocy by establishing nutrition protocols and by simplifying the commercial design.
Fish are fed a high protein, minerally rich feed. The waste is excreted and converted by beneficial bacteria into useable plant nutrients. The quality of feed affects how well plants grow. Therefore, Dr. Ako defined a feeding protocol known as the Nutrient Flux Hypothesis. This protocol provided proper nutrition for both plants and fish and could be adjusted based on system needs.
Work was also done to define a simple and affordable model for farmers that could be used to create operational parameters. Dr. Ako’s philosophy mirrored that of the engineering adage KISS, keep it simple, stupid. Early commercial systems were built with plastic lined wooden boxes, and water was transferred from the fish tanks to the grow bed by using 5-gallon buckets or water pumps.
Aquaponics has rapidly grown from Rakocy’s developmental model and Ako’s wooden research boxes. Commercial farms range from 1-acre in size to just a couple hundred square feet of growing space with the larger farms producing more than 10,000 pounds of produce per month. The number of farms continues to rise and today there are about 150 aquaponics producers in the United States employing over 800 people and supporting of 2000 plus volunteers. With more farms promised in the future, Blooming Health Farms is excited to be part of the aquaponics evolution!