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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Oregon-based Aquaponic Startup Seeks to Completely Close Loop

February 14, 2013 |

Hydroponics, the practice of growing crops in nutrient-rich water as opposed to soil, in concert with aquaculture, the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish, crustaceans, molluscs, etc., creates a sustainable, symbiotic farming system called aquaponic farming. Aquaponic farming is not a new form of farming, but other than many of the readers of this website few people know about it. Three men, Gabriel Michels, Timothy Kirk and Nicholas Fox, who partnered to create Grass Roots Aquaponic Farms LLC, located in Oregon City, Oregon, hope to change that. The idea was planted years ago.

“Actually, I was inspired back in high school,” says Michels. “That was about 10 years ago. Nic and I were in the same class and our school got a grant to have a complete aquaponic setup. It was great! We grew all kinds of vegetables.”

According to Michels, some statistics show that, if we maintain our current methods and rate of oceanic commercial fishing, our oceans will be depleted of fish by about the year 2048. Farming fish is not necessarily solving the problem, either.

“A lot of people don’t realize that the commercial feed pellets used to grow farmed fish come from the extra non-game fish caught in the nets,” Michels says. “It’s all blended up into fish food. It’s actually taking fish from the ocean and using them to feed farm-raised fish.”

Equally concerning, according to Michels, is how traditionally grown hydroponic vegetables are fertilized.

“Strictly hydroponic farms are difficult to grow organically,” Michels says. “Mostly, they use commercial fertilizers.”

Aquaponic farming solves this dilemma, according to Michels. The advantage of aquaponic farming is that it practices the “full circle” method of farming. The aquatic life by-products are used to feed the plants and vice versa. It can be done 100 percent organically with a minimal environmental impact.

An artist's rendering of Grass Roots Aquaponic Farms' future greenhouse and outbuildings. Image Credit: Grass Roots Aquaponic Farms.

The business took some time and many small steps to become a reality, Michels says. He and Fox spent many hours researching what was going on in food growing industries. Fox started his own small aquaponic setup for personal use along with a sideline business making aquaponic kits to sell as well as offering his services as a consultant.

“He was nudging me to get going with him on a commercial level,” Michels says. “But the initial research I’d done showed that it wasn’t commercially viable. Then, with much more research, we saw that it definitely was commercially viable.”

After discussing how they wanted to go about starting up an aquaponic farm, Michels and Fox agreed that they wanted to be 100 percent organic and use all scraps and wastes from by-products with the ultimate goal of becoming completely self-sustaining within a year, according to Michels. The decision to bring in a third partner came at that point.

“We felt that, with three partners, we would retain a democracy, a balance, so that we couldn’t get into a deadlock regarding decision making. That’s when we brought in Tim. That was about four months ago. We’re all equally invested. “

Grass Roots Aquaponic Farms earns its income by operating as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm as well as supplying organic foods to local restaurants.

“Right now, it’s about a 50/50 split,” Michels says. “Nic is friends with the head chef at a local Portland restaurant, Olympic Provisions, and we sell to them. They’re a small chain with three restaurants right now. We’re also recruiting other restaurants.”

The produce Grass Roots is currently supplying includes tomatoes, peppers and various salad greens. The fish currently grown is Tilapia. Feed for the Tilapia consists of black soldier fly larvae, duck weed and red worms. They are researching other kinds of vegetables and fish to grow for the future as well as the introduction of chickens and goats, Michels says.

“That will help round out the holistic permaculture here,” he adds.

They are taking it slow and planning on expanding as they go.

“We’re still trying to figure out a good use of advertisement that’s more than just word of mouth,” Michels says. “We’d also like to work with local resources on how best to expand what we produce. We’re considering another type of fish production and would like to work with local universities on developing that.”

The initial cost to start the farm was about $18,000 but Michels emphasizes that they managed that by purchasing their greenhouse, used, from Craigslist for about $15,000 less than it would normally cost. As for projected earnings, they are expecting about $3400 a month.

They are also researching installing wind towers and possibly utilizing solar energy technologies as well as converting their natural gas heating system to a methane system in order to further reduce their carbon footprint.

“We hope to be off-grid before too long,” Michels says. “We’re reinvesting all profits back into the company for the first year. Our goal is to have nothing getting trucked in or out except for seeds. We will have a completely closed-loop system.”

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