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Colorado Aquaponics Co. Rises from Ashes of Economic Downturn to Help Increase Access to Local Food

April 24, 2012 |

The onset of the economic downturn may have proven to be a blessing in disguise for one of Denver, Colorado’s poorest inner city neighborhoods. Like so many other accomplished professionals, JD Sawyer was laid off from his job as the Director of Operations for Johnson & Wales University Denver campus in 2009. With extra time on his hands and a desire to teach his three children sustainable farming techniques, JD read an article in the local newspaper about a low income neighborhood in the middle of Denver where people had very limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables – a right JD believes everyone should have.

“The article made me realize I had an opportunity to help teach people how to take charge of their own food production,” said JD Sawyer. “I realized we had the opportunity to grow food in our backyard where people needed it most.”

Using the article and his family as a source of inspiration, JD made the decision to take on a whole new career path. Together, with his wife Tawnya, the Sawyer’s started Colorado Aquaponics in late 2009. Today, Colorado Aquaponics is a Denver-based urban farming business that designs and builds aquaponic food systems for families and communities.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, aquaponics combine hydroponics with aquaculture to create a more optimized and sustainable food production system by solving for problems that occur in the individual systems. With hydroponics, a grower often must rely upon commercial fertilizers in order to enrich the water, while in aquaculture the fish farmer must constantly monitor the toxicity levels of the water that results from fish effluents (waste). In aquaponics, the fish effluent in the water provides an organic nutrient source, or natural fertilizer, for the plants being grown in the system. The plants in turn consume the natural fertilizer and in the process filter and purify the water, which is subsequently recirculated back to the fish.

Colorado Aquaponics uses two different fish species, trout and tilapia, in their aquaponic system. The trout are native to Colorado and thrive in cold water. Because they prefer cold water, energy is saved that would otherwise be used to heat the tanks. The fish work to fertilize many different types of seasonal produce including, but not limited to watercress, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, melon, strawberries, peppers and several varieties of local lettuce.

Watercress growing in a Colorado Aquaponics trout system. Photo courtesy of Colorado Aquaponics.

Addressing Food Education and Access to Local Food  

Colorado Aquaponics was initially founded in 2009 as a partnership with GrowHaus, a non-profit indoor farm, marketplace and educational center located in one of Denver’s most poverty stricken neighborhoods. Together, GrowHaus and Colorado Aquaponics made it their goal to teach neighborhood residents about issues surrounding food justice, sustainability and how to incorporate healthy eating habits into their diet. GrowHaus was able to provide the Sawyers with a large greenhouse space in which they could grow and develop their fish and plant beds.

Another reason that the Sawyers became interested in starting an aquaponic farming company in Colorado is because, according to JD, 98 percent of the food consumed in the state is imported from various states around the country. “This is a very high number when you consider that Colorado is considered to be such a big farming state,” said JD.

Business Model

Since 2009, Colorado Aquaponics has developed into a fully functional, for-profit urban agriculture business that provides educational workshops and training services, offers aquaponic system design consulting, and operates its own aquaponic systems to produce food for local communities, restaurants, friends and family.

The education portion of the business includes giving lectures, providing demonstrations, offering online courses and going into classrooms to teach children aquaponics farming techniques across the state.

“Kids absolutely light up when they see fish and plants in the classroom. Teaching kids about sustainable food production systems and eating healthy local food is a message we love to spread,” says Sawyer.  “There are so many ways to learn from aquaponics and engage our youth.”

The consulting piece of the business includes advising entrepreneurs in the area interested in employing aquaponics systems by helping them perform feasibility studies and design their aquaponics system. The company works to design both residential and commercial aquaponics systems. JD says that recently the company has seen an uptick in people interested in using aquaponics on a commercial scale.

The third piece of Colorado Aquaponic’s business model is the company’s own farm. While the farm has not yet been as profitable as the education and consulting arms, the Sawyers hope to grow this portion of the business over the next year.

To do so, they recently purchased Flourish Farms, a greenhouse space with a commercial aquaponics farm in Arvada, a suburb of Denver.

GrowHaus Director of Operations, Adam Brock speaks highly of the work the Sawyers and their seven-person team conduct across the state. “They (Colorado Aquaponics) are an aquaponics movement on a national scale proving that with some advanced planning and risk assessment it is possible to apply this type of system in very urban environments to generate much more food.”

While the Sawyers remain optimistic that the business will continue to grow, there are also several challenges to using aquaponics in Colorado. It is a northern climate with seasonal changes. In order to farm in Colorado during all seasons, it’s necessary to grow indoors, which can lead to very high energy costs. “We have talked to a lot of people who get very excited about aquaponics, but there are lots of people who rush into it without a proper business plan who get clobbered. Our company is positioned to help people out with this,” says JD.

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