Aquaponics innovators find ways to grow food in infertile climates
With its short growing season and its sparse rainfall, Utah can’t hold a candle to California or Kansas when it comes to feeding the nation. But maybe that’s why the state is attracting pioneers in the field of sustainable agriculture people committed to growing more food with fewer resources.
Two of those people were in Park City April 7 to speak at a panel discussion on innovations in clean technology at the 2016 Thin Air Innovation Festival. Both are offering creative solutions to the problems posed by shortages of arable land and fresh water in various parts of the world.
"We’re spoiled in the United States," said Lance Bullen, CEO of FNC Aquaponics. "We have the bread basket unbelievable tracts of arable soil. There are countries that have very little arable soil places in Africa, etc. So, for communities like that, where they’re importing everything, basically, this (concept) allows them to, on a very local level, get excited … about producing something that’s of value, that’s good to eat, on their own."
Aquaponics, Bullen explained, is a cross between aquaculture raising fish and hydroponics, which is raising crops without soil. "So aquaponics is basically those two systems combined where you feed the fish, the waste from the fish fertilizes the plants, the plants grow, clean the water, and the water returns to the fish," he said. "Your only two inputs, really, are sunlight and fish food, and your outputs are fish that you can eat which is a very sustainable protein and whatever you’re growing."
About three years ago Bullen approached officials at Utah State University with a proposal for a joint venture "with the goal to basically take aquaponics and make it as easy and as cheap and as affordable as possible," he said. "And so, over the past three years, we’ve now gone from a prototype that’s functioning to in-field installations where we’re partnering with NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) to deliver these systems at a very low cost in developing countries. We have two installations in Mexico and we’re going to be doing a third installation in the fall."
With the help of these partners, FMC has been able to whittle its costs down from an expected $60,000-$80,000 for comparable systems to less than $10,000 per project. "Our hard costs are locally sourced from the community where we’re doing the installation, Bullen said. "And a system that is 10 meters by 20 meters, which could fit in your backyard, produces about 15,000 heads of lettuce and about a metric ton of fish annually."
Unlike other protein sources such as beef, fish are highly efficient in converting food to protein, Bullen said. "You feed the fish feed, and out of one part feed it almost is one part protein. So they’re very efficient. Beef, for example is 10 to one."
Appearing on the panel with Bullen was Casey Houweling, whose company, Houweling’s Tomatoes, has been in business for more than 30 years. It was started by his father in British Columbia, expanded to California in the mid-1990s, and then began year-round production in Utah in 2015.
Growing tomatoes in Utah year-round?
The answer, of course, was to build greenhouses. In 2014, Houweling’s began erecting about 28 acres of them on a site near Mona Reservoir in Juab County.
Now imagine what it would cost to heat a 28-acre building with glass walls and roofs. Other Utah growers such as Milgro in Newcastle, Utah, are tapping into geothermal aquifers to keep their plants cozy. But Houweling’s chose a different route.
Directly across the road from Houweling’s Utah greenhouses sits the natural-gas-fired Currant Creek Power Plant, owned by PacifiCorp, the parent company of Rocky Mountain Power. And so Houweling’s well, Casey Houweling can tell the story.
"All electricity that we consume (in the United States) other than solar and wind is basically between 40 and 50 percent efficient in turning energy into electricity," he said. "The rest of it’s heat. Imagine what we could do with all that heat if we managed to trap it and cap it and use it in a useful way."
Houweling approached PacifiCorp and persuaded the company to let him tap into the stack of the power plant.
"We put in a 10-foot-diameter fiberglass pipe to bring the flue gases across the road. … So it comes out of the stack at around 200 degrees Fahrenheit, which is low-grade heat. We take it and we cool it down to about 70 degrees, and the heat that we’ve taken out goes into hot water, and that’s what we heat the greenhouse with. So … in the middle of winter it could be 20 below or whatever else it is and not use an ounce of natural gas to heat the facility."
Houweling noted that, unlike the geothermal option, the power plant is also a source of food-grade carbon dioxide, which is critical for plant growth. And a byproduct of the cooling process is high-quality condensation that is used for irrigation.
The company estimates that those 28 acres of greenhouses produce as much as 900 acres of farmland, using a fraction of the water and fertilizer.
"We’re proud of what we do as far as … doing it in an environmentally sustainable manner," Houweling said. "We’ve also patented the system because it’s the first in the world to ever have done (that). And we’re also proud of the fact that we can supply tomatoes on a 12-month basis that actually taste good, that actually have high quality, that have no pesticides, and that don’t have to travel thousands of miles to get here."
It’s ironic that Casey Houweling’s biggest competition comes from Mexico, the same country that was the beficiary of Lance Bullen’s first two aquaponic installations.
"One of the things we did some calculations on: the amount of money we pay our employees for coffee break is the same amount (that) a Mexican field farmer pays per day to their employees," Houweling said. "That’s a tough nut to compete with."
The secret to Houweling’s success, he said, is to convince shoppers that, when it comes to food, the lowest price isn’t necessarily the best choice.
"Americans spend the least amount of their disposable income on food of any nation in the world. And if they really want to put emphasis on what they’re eating, what they’re putting into their bodies, and how sustainable it is, that formula is going to have to change. Because that means they need to eat more healthy food. And sustainability in some ways it’s not more expensive, but in our case it certainly is, if we’re producing here in America, compared to what happens in Mexico."
Houweling’s Tomatoes have already made inroads into Utah supermarkets. You can find them at many Associated Fresh Market stores, including the two Park City stores; at many Smith’s locations, including Heber and Park City; and also at Costco, Harmons, Macey’s, Sam’s Club, Reams and Ridley’s locations, including the Midway store.
"We grow a special kind of tomato a small one," Houweling said. "You might be able to find it if you look for it in some of the stores out here. It’s called a Sweetom. I’ll guarantee that if you buy those and give them to your kids, they’ll be addicted."
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