“We thought it was messed up you had to be wealthy to be healthy,” Gina Cavaliero, of Green Acre Organics, says at the beginning of her farm tour. The tour, held once a month, welcomes visitors to the farm, though “tour” is slightly misleading since the commerical farm operates on just 2,000 square feet of growing space. Nevertheless, community members make the journey down a dirt road, many of them return visitors, to learn more about the hybrid growing system of aquaponics in a farm session that is booked solid every month. Through this system, that small 2,000 square foot space grows over 13,000 plants at a time, using 20,000 gallons of recycled water, and just 118 watts of energy. Oh, and did I mention the 280 tilapia that are crucial to the whole system? Yes, the entire system rests on the backs of fish.
Aquaponics, Gina explains to the 20 or so interested individuals gathered, creates a closed system that optimizes the growing of clean and nutritious food. “We got into this business after getting into organics and just wanting clean, fresh food,” explains Gina. Though Green Acre is not certified organic, it builds from the values and beliefs of organic standards. First and foremost, the system is sustainable.
It all begins with the fish – 280 tilapia swimming in a rearing tank, producing valuable fertilizer in the form of fish waste. The only fertilizer Green Acre buys is in the form of fish flakes as feed. This all-natural system then pumps the water through a series of sieves in order to sift out the ‘good stuff’, which is then pumped in an ‘s’ pattern through multiple troughs, where plants sit in basket-like cups set in trays floating on water. Gravity pulls the water through the system. At the lowest point, a 118 watt pump moves the water back the rearing tank, where it is oxygenated and the whole cycle begins again. The entire system is closed and sustainable. The 118 watt pump will soon be operated with solar energy to make the entire system renewable.
Aquaponic classes are taught at the farm, where Gina and partner Tonya Penick share their knowledge and experience with aquaponics system. This system is not only clean and sustainable, but also scalable. “We do it on a commercial level, but it could work even on a condo balcony… We want to teach as many people as possible about growing food this way.”
Gina is careful not to be too idealistic about the aquaponic system, emphasizing that we still need conventional farming for grains. Work is being done on growing rice in aquaponic systems, however corn and soy are a long way off, if not impossible to grow aquaponically due to the mass acreage required. “What we can hope for is to grow everything else this way [aquaponically]. We can take some of the burden off the big-ag businesses and more land can be used effectively,” Gina continues, echoing many of the same conclusions by Jonathan Foley in a recently posted ted talk. In his talk, Foley asked people to come together at the table to find solutions, combining the best of organic, local, and even GMOs. Aquaponics could easily be added to that solution, using 90% less water than conventional methods and delivering clean food directly to the consumer – potentially even at the hands of the consumer, as local farmers are reaching out and teaching innovative methods through tours and classes like those offered at Green Acre.Think before you eat, Elizabeth Murray Winter 2012 Tampa Food Warrior