Blog submitted by Nadine Naujoks
For Emerald Springs Farm owners Lee and Bill Barker, producing healthy sustainably grown local food is a passion. What’s fishy is Bill’s method of using aquaponics to produce lush nutrient-dense veggies year round.
Aquaponics is a method of combining aquaculture (raising fish), with hydroponics (raising produce in water, not soil.) With roots going back to the ancient Aztecs, the development of modern aquaponics is often attributed to Dr. Mark McMurtry at the North Carolina State University and the New Alchemy Institute.
The water from the fish, rich with nutrients from their waste, is filtered to refine the nitrates and introduced to the beds holding the plants. The plants further filter the water which is then reintroduced to the fish tanks.
The idea of aquaponics allowed Bill the perfect outlet for his two personal passions, Koi ponds and gardening. He started out experimenting with a smaller system, using 55-gal plastic drums for his fish. Over the past two years, his operation has grown into a 3300 square-foot climate controlled greenhouse with two 1200-gal gravity-fed fish tanks holding about 75 and 100 tilapia, respectively.
In this system, water is moved from the fish tanks into gravel beds with alfalfa and worms to further mineralize the water. It is then fed into the vegetable beds. Bill also uses bubblers to promote a better oxygen mix in his plant beds.
One of the challenges Bill faced was tuning the nutrients from the fish to the just right needs of his plants. He used testing available through the NC State Cooperative Extension and trial and error with various plants. While he can and does grow other produce, Bill found his system's spectrum of nutrients best supports celery, Swiss chard and lettuces with a little boron and manganese added. The result is beautiful lush jewel-tone produce.
Plants grow to harvest much quicker in the soil-less aquaponics system. Bill starts from seed in two-inch net pots. When the seedlings develop a nice root system, he moves them over to the main beds. He goes from seed to harvest in six to eight weeks with the leafy plants producing for 8 months. While he does grow some fruiting plants (tomatoes, peppers, etc.) they do not thrive as well as the leafy greens.
Farming the tilapia is a near future program for Bill; he is looking into ways to best bring the fish to market. I for one am looking forward to that day! Tilapia are an ideal species for aquaponics for many reasons. They are easy to breed, fast growing can withstand varying water conditions, consume an omnivorous diet and are good eating.It takes the fingerlings about a year to grow to 1 to 1.5 pound harvestable size.
It was a real treat to visit Bill and Lee on their 9-acre farm in Green Creek. The Barkers also raise pastured dairy goats and free range chickens in compliance with AWA (Animal Welfare Approved) standards, meaning their livestock is nurtured with the highest integrity and accountability.
Emerald Springs Rainbow Swiss Chard and Gourmet Lettuces are available at the Mill Spring Farm Store, through Polk Fresh and other farm friendly outlets in the area.