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Oct. 22, 2021

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Aquaponic farms bubble up in Clark County

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Debbie Boe, owner of Edible Acres Farm in Ridgefield, feeds koi swimming in the fish tank in a room near her greenhouse on Friday morning. Waste from the koi is circulated through planting beds to grow food in a process known as aquaponics.
Debbie Boe, owner of Edible Acres Farm in Ridgefield, feeds koi swimming in the fish tank in a room near her greenhouse on Friday morning. Waste from the koi is circulated through planting beds to grow food in a process known as aquaponics. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Two operations grow produce using water from tanks enriched by koi

Visiting an aquaponic farm feels like landing at a space station or stealing a glimpse into a Seussian future.

Unlike Old McDonald’s farm, there’s no dirt, tractors, barns filled with hay, chicken coops or bags of fertilizer. In place of these long-established farm items are rows and rows of rapidly growing produce using 10 percent of the water needed for traditional farming. Aquaponic systems can be set up in a space as small as a closet.

These farms operate by creating a symbiotic relationship between fish and plants. It begins with a fish tank. Fish eat high-quality food that’s primarily absorbed in their bodies. Helpful bacteria in the tank turn ammonia from the fish waste into nitrites and then nitrates. The water is pumped from the tank into the area where the plants grow. Plant roots suck up the nitrates. The clean water then flows back into the fish tank to begin the cycle again.

In Clark County, two farmers have built their own aquaponic systems.

A recent study by a group of scientists at Purdue University found that fresh produce from aquaponics had a higher economic value and lower environmental impacts. The researchers concluded that aquaponic farms had 45 percent less of an environmental impact than traditional farming and were less impactful than hydroponics because the fish waste replaces the fertilizer used in hydroponics. The researchers noted that changing the energy source from the mix of coal, natural gas, and wind to all wind would reduce the environmental impact up to 48 percent.

“I always struggle with high-tech farming stuff because it only works in rich countries where they have food,” said Heather Carpenter, an environmental studies lecturer at the University of Portland. Nonetheless, Carpenter sees a potential for this technology to fix a common problem in our country — urban food deserts.

“The potential for urban growth is huge,” she said. “It’s harder to get fresh food in a city.”

Aquaponic farms create a way to grow food in cramped resource-deprived urban areas. In addition, immediate access to fresh food encourages its consumption.

“Fresh lettuce tastes much better than week-old lettuce from 100 miles away,” she said.

Carpenter noted that urban farms have sprung up in places like Detroit. She worries about the soil in cities where lead paint from homes has leached into the soil. Since aquaponics relies solely on a completely new and untainted environment, she believes that this technology may be a good thing for farming in areas where the natural environment has been contaminated.

In 2015, Debbie Boe of Edible Acres Farm in Ridgefield searched for methods to grow nutrient-rich food. She discovered aquaponics and found an organization called Friendly Aquaponics in Hawaii, then signed up for a weeklong training held in Texas.

“What interested me in Friendly Aquaponics was that there are a billion different ways to do aquaponics. Almost everyone else is trying to sell you something,” she said. “With Friendly Aquaponics, you’re just paying for the training. You’re buying knowledge,” she said. Boe later hired Rachel Feston, of Urban Snail, as a farm manager to help maintain the system.

The Edible Acres system starts with a large tank filled with koi. The koi eat a high-quality food that’s almost completely absorbed into their bodies, so solid waste and the pungent smell of a home aquarium doesn’t emanate from the tank. Despite the lack of foul odors, this part of the system operates similarly to a fish aquarium. Two types of beneficial bacteria create a biological filter. One type of bacteria turns ammonia from waste into nitrite, another then turns nitrite into nitrates, which are used by the plants in the greenhouse.

A mechanical filter keeps the fish in the tank while an elaborate plumbing system allows the water to go into beds in a large greenhouse. In the floating beds sit plants like lettuce and celery resting in small holes filled with a handful of coir (coconut husk) and vermiculite. The plant roots grow into the water and take in nitrates returning clean water to the fish tank. Oxygen is pumped into the beds using a bubbler.

Boe built her aquaponic system in late October 2017. She started with tilapia, but decided that koi would be more profitable. In the greenhouse, Boe grows green onions, celery and a variety of lettuces. She’s experimenting with peppers. Her produce sells through the Second Mile Marketplace. Edible Acres’ growing season is November through February. The warm water flowing through the system keeps the greenhouse warm all winter.

Edible Acres has experienced some setbacks. One summer, hornets got into the heater, causing the water temperature to reach 109 degrees. All the fish died. Another time, the water filter fell off and the fish got into the pools in the greenhouse. Getting them out was extremely difficult. They’re adept at darting around under the beds and hiding.

Boe doesn’t see aquaponics taking off in Clark County, but Feston thinks that farmland lost to development and problems sourcing water may force others to seek new farming methods that require fewer natural resources. Boe’s system uses 15,000 gallons of water to grow plants in her greenhouse. Her water consumption is 10 percent of what she’d need to grow the same amount of food using traditional dirt farming.

“We’re going to have to get creative farming in Clark County,” said Feston.

Brad Ritchmond, of RyLo Farms in Vancouver, always loved aquariums. As a young child, he took care of his family’s fish aquarium and later made a career of working at aquarium stores in Seattle. Aquaponics came naturally to him.

“It’s all about keeping fish healthy and happy so the plants can do their own thing,” he said.

Ritchmond’s farm operates completely indoors. He uses energy-efficient methods to grow food, including low-wattage LED lights and aeroponics, a process of growing plants in air or mist instead of soil. Right now the farm exists in a garage.

The 4-by-8-foot setup can grow 300 basil plants in a short 14 days.

“We’re doing it faster in smaller quarters,” said Ritchmond. He also uses koi because he believes he can make a healthy profit by selling them. One rare koi fish sold for $1.8 million through an auction in Japan in 2018. Pond-quality koi sell from between $5 and $100.

RyLo Farms’ plants include a few types of basil, Russian red kale, and microgreens. Ritchmond’s wife, Christina, has been bringing it to yoga class and giving it to her massage clients. This has led to some subscriptions. RyLo Farms will have a booth at the Vancouver Farmers Market’s fall market. They also sell to Chuck’s.

Ritchmond is looking for a warehouse to expand production. “A 2,000-square-foot warehouse can produce as much as you can with a football field,” he said. Given the expense of traditional farming and the shrinking of resources like land and water, he believes aquaponics will become less of a curiosity and more of necessity.

“The reality is that this is the future of farming,” he said.