There's Something Fishy in this Technology - The Art & Science of Aquaponics

This week I was Out & About to a company that makes pretty cool use of technology.
 
It was a place where chemistry, materials science, physics,biology, and botany were deployed in creative and effective ways. And,oh yeah, the products tasted pretty darn good too.

I was at a farm.

The E&T Farms (http://www.eandtfarmsinc.com/) in West Barnstable, to be exact.

Frequent readers know that I've always held a wide-angle view ofthe term "technology." In my world, technology is about applying humanknowledge through human hands.

Technology is where the mind of science meets the road of reality,where know-how and how-to intersect. If you've sent an email, you're atechnology user. If you've build a compost bin, you're a technologycreator. Technology  and engineering aren't just about computers.

Well, they ARE about computers, of course. But they are also aboutirrigation, bridges, roadways, waste management, and yes, farming.

You see, E&T may be a farm, but it is also a company wherehydroponics combines with fish farming to create a balanced cycle ofproduction, business, and both geographic and economic sustainability.

In hydroponic farming, plant roots take their nutrients from water anduse a growing material such as composite material clay-like balls,coconut husks, and perlite, rather than growing in the earth.

In our chilly Northeast climate, this means edible crops -- cash crops-- can grow year-round within a protected greenhouse. It means saladgreens that are regionally grown ... in November.

Guess what? It takes an application of technology to make this happen.

At E&T the process is called aquaponics - the integration of fishfarming (AQUAculture) and growing plants in water (hyrdoPONICS). Onemight also think of it as whole system engineering.

Every element in the farm is part of planned system. One side of thegreenhouse contains a series of tanks, with giant wheel filtersoptimized to expose water to the bacteria that dwell upon them.
 
Upwells - where water is pushed upward -- add oxygen to the waterand strip out carbon dioxide.  The result is well-oxygenated andnutrition-filled grazing grounds for koi and tilapia.
 
The koi fish arrive in West Barnstable as itty-bitty fingerlings,hatched in Malaysia and health tested before growing to market size atE&T.
 
The tilapia,  an ancient food fish that has been farmed for morethan 2500 years, hail from New Mexico  and are a few milligrams inweight before they grow to table size on the Cape.
 
In their greenhouse pools, the fish eat and grow and grow and eat ... and produce waste. Now here comes the full system part!
 
Fish waste is mostly ammonia.To a certain kind of bacteria, ammonia is life's joy. And thosebacteria just happen to live on those giant wheel filters, whey theyblissfully multiply and convert ammonia into nitrate.
 
Nitrate is a form of nitrogen which is part of  ... plantfertilizer. The second side of the greenhouse holds - you guessed it!-- a series of raised plant trays.
 
The ammonia waste of the fish is part of the life cycle for thebacteria. The nitrate output of the bacteria is nutritional gold for theplants.
 
The plant trays aren't little petite planters  - we're talkinglike 10 foot troughs with cutout circles for the plants and a stream ofwater slowing trickling along the basin below, feeding the greens.
 
The plants are lush and healthy -- and grown through sustainable agriculture, without added chemicals. I wish I could get my sad little basil to grow like E&T's basil do!
 
Behind the greenhouse, as part of the water use cycle, are cattails and-- soon -- native plants like spicebush. The natives are beingcultivated for landscaping. It's another cash crop that is part of theplanned system.
 
And don't think for a second that this is some fuzzy green experiment. This is a business.
 
It is a business built on technology that allows both sustainable practice and economic returns.
 
E&T Farms works locally and globally, using both ancient andcurrent technology to grow gorgeous salad greens, ornamental koi, andtalapia for the table.
 
And, oh yeah, it is also an regional employer, sustaining threeemployees, plus supporting the future with a work-study student fromthe Upper Cape Tech high school.
 
It produces goods which make their way to a variety of markets:
  • The salad greens and amazing basil show up on restaurant plates around the region;

  • The tilapia fish end up on the restaurant and home table and arealso sold to Nantucket Wild Gourmet & Smokehouse(http://nantucketwildgourmet.com/) in Chatham - which in turn smokesand sells the farmed fish to its national market;

  • The ornamental Koi fish are sold in the wholesale trade and findtheir way to retailers across Massachusetts, New Hampshire, RhodeIsland, Connecticut, and New York.
On the tour, someone was making cell phone photos and posting themto Facebook remotely. Owner Ed Osmun was watching the process. As aphoto uploaded, he joked "I don't know about that - I need to have mykids or grandkids teach me."
 
He doesn't know how to use Facebook? So what!
 
Don't think for a second that his business isn't making farsmarter use of technology, technology that brings you that lusciousplate of crispy greens while the snow falls gently outside.

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