It’s amazing to think that according to some report, good nutritious food is unavailable to nearly 22% of people in Phoenix. Think about that, out of nearly 1.5 million people, 330,000 might not get a good meal today. Instinctively across our city people are seeking solutions and one is to grow food locally. We all know that locally grown food is good for you and better for the earth. It is called being sustainable. That is harnessing and enhancing our social, environmental and economic resources so our families and society may survive and prosper for the short and long term. Allow me to briefly elaborate.
By education and training, I am an agricultural/environmental scientist. A big part of my job was to work with farmers to use less water, less energy and less fertilizer while making more money. Back then, this was called “Low Input Agriculture.” Today, it is called “Sustainable Agriculture.” – just new words for the same concept. I’ve always worked on big farms, 600 acres minimum. So, the 10-foot by 10-foot plot my wife created in the backyard was beneath my notice. That is until she started bringing in these sinks full of greens, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables every other week or so.
Now Angela is a busy person. Professionally, she is the head trainer for her company for three counties, including Arizona’s most populated Maricopa. So for her to focus on this, it must have been important. After a while, she started to change our meals as well. It seemed a little spare at first. You know, minimum salt, reduced red meat and a whole lot of salad; but before long, I started to like it. Simultaneously, she persuaded me to take better care of my health, so it started to improve. Wonder of wonders. The kids even like it!
All of these changes were interrelated, one with another, beginning with the garden. So, I swallowed by pride and asked the question, “Um…Angie, if we bought all of this food you grow from the store, how much would it cost us?” Well, I don’t know about you, but $700 is $700, so I am now a convert.
Since my conversion to urban farmer, I have learned that friends of mine have been doing this for a lot longer than I have. For example, my friend Abraham’s entire yard is converted to food. Called edible landscaping, instead of growing plants to beautify his home that only look good, he makes sure they taste good as well. We are experimenting with this process also. It is not as easy as it looks, but we are getting the hang of it. The same is true with using fruit trees as landscaping and as shade for your home. The fruit you can eat and the shade reduces the heat loading on your home–so it helps to keep those summer power bills down.
Our list of crops is getting extensive. It includes several different kinds of carrots, corn, tomatoes, peppers, celery, lettuce, beets, cilantro, squash, greens, cucumbers, loofahs, melons, watermelons, grapefruit, pomegranates, beans, peas, flowers, garlic and onions. So far, so good; but man does not live by salad alone; and this is where the aquaponics comes in.
The traditional animal crops that one can raise in the backyard, dependent on your local zoning, are chickens. However, with chickens, I love to eat them, hate to kill–let alone clean them. Fish however, are different matter. Aquaculture is the farming and husbandry of aquatic animals and plants and aquaponics is a specialized way to do aquaculture that is cost effective in urban settings. In aquaponics, the fish provide nutrients for plants and the plants clean the water for the fish. When done properly, this closed sustainable low water use farming method produces great vegetable crops and fish for your table at the same time. We are now using aquaponics in combination with our backyard land farming and edible landscaping efforts. Our goal now is to grow enough food so the money saved offsets our annual power bill. However, our backyard is not the end of the story.
My business partner and James Hicks and I took some time and modified the technology to make it simpler, easier to use, less expensive and easier to build. This new “Pop Up Aquaponcis™” technique can be installed in a business or restaurant parking lot with no soil anywhere near, up and ready to grow food in less than a day. The first of these installed at the Valley View Orchard Community Learning Center is already producing great basil and peppers and we anticipate crops of the African fish tilapia, giant freshwater prawns, tomatoes, cucumbers and melons in the next few months. Most importantly it will soon be used to help elementary school students to learn Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. It amazing how much biology, botany, mathematics, chemistry, engineering, business, civics and more a child can learn from growing a tomato. Wish us luck. All you need is the desire. I encourage you to give it a try. Start small and you will be amazed what you can do.
Scientist, activist, public speaker and entrepreneur, Dr. George B. Brooks, Jr. Ph.D., is a co-founder of RighTrac Inc., a company focused on sustainability and new applications of Aquaponics. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Greetings. A couple of times @Bob has requested more information on how our system works. Good and fair questions. However, I wanted to take a moment to delve into the why of our aquaponics rather than the how. We will get to the how but a little later. I’ve been in the science/art/business of aquaculture now since 1980 and my partner Jim and I working on it since 1998. The Holy Grail has always been to find a method to move it (aquaculture) cost effectively into urban areas. Aquaponics clearly is a Sustainable way to do this. The primary focus of this current project was to increase the general public’s access to aquaponcs and to determine if backyard aquaponics could actually help to feed a family of 4 and by how much? So to answer these two questions, here are a few of the things we set out to accomplish:
1. Keep the costs down as far as possible.
2. Use 100% off the shelf materials (if it takes longer than 2 days to get it or if MUST order it you don’t need or want it (does not include fish and shrimp but that would be good too))
3.Make it big enough to potentially feed a family of four and to make 1 to 1 comparisons to a “square foot garden” to create an honest judge of how effective the technique is.
4. Keep design, construction, operation and maintenance as simple, fast and easy as possible (KISS) (1 to 2 days construction time)
5. Use as little energy as possible and to replace needed energy with solar applications if possible.
6. Make the system as resilient as possible (power, failures, mechanical failure, disease, temperature fluctuations, nutrient deficiencies, pH fluctuations etc).
7. Capture as many operational synergies as possible. (find those situations where 1+ 1 = 4 and maximize them.)
8. Determine new planting schedules
9. Develop techniques to grow foods people actually eat or sell within their communities.
10. Maximize safety
11. Be scaleable
March 2013 will mark our 24th month of work and we have actually accomplished much of what we set out to do. To do so though we have broken a number of the aquaponics rules as suggested by this internet site, but have and will have learned a lot. We will be hosting more classes soon as well as watch out for some upcoming news releases. However, so the public can have access to the results of our work beyond reports at scientific conferences like Aquaculture 2013 (If they accepted the abstract, Aquaponics and STEM education in Phoenix Arizona), or blog postings, we are working on a book about our experiences.
George B. Brooks, Jr. Ph.D.
President/CEO at NxT Horizon Group
Owner, Southwest Green