Kimberly Aney, a recent graduate of the agriculture program at SUNY Cobleskill in Upstate New York, has dreams of building a small farm that grows fish and lettuce in concert with one another. She says she sees the practice, known as aquaponics, as a cheap, clean, and compact alternative to the inefficiencies she observed on the dairy farm on which she grew up.
In southern Oregon, Michael Hasey extends the growing season of his 40-acre organic farm with an aquaponics system that produces greens and tilapia throughout the winter. It’s a way to squeak out an extra margin, rest his fields, and, he believes, improve both his own soil and the environment at large.
And, in New Orleans, Marianne Cufone uses her in-ground aquaponics system—in which ponds full of fish provide nutrients for the trays of herbs, cucumbers, and melons floating above them, and vice versa—partly as an educational tool. She wants more people to know about the myriad benefits she’s reaped while farming this way: about the hyper-local crops, the reliable fresh food in flood-prone regions, and the minimal waste inherent in the system.
Unlike modern hydroponic farms, which can feed plants regular quantities of synthetic fertilizers, aquaponics harks back to early growing methods developed in Asia and South America that blend aquaculture (or fish farming) with agriculture. The practice functions in an ecosystem in which the fish eat things like duckweed and, when they’re housed outside, insects; their waste feeds the plants; and the plants filter the water for the fish. Any remaining waste is composted and, as in the case of Hasey’s farm, added back to the soil in which he grows his row crops.
Cufone also has a larger goal. What began as a community-based mission has expanded into a national effort as she seeks to drum up awareness about aquaponic farming in her role as executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition (RFC), and to mobilize other farmers using the technology to become more vocal about its virtues and its future.
First, though, she has to find them.
“Even though [aquaponic farmers] have been operating in the U.S. for more than 30 years, we don’t have a good count,” Cufone says. That applies both to commercial operations such as Hasey’s that sell to regional supermarkets and also to backyard, or “recreational,” farms like the one Aney would like to set up. The latter are especially difficult to track. RFC wants to see aquaculture acknowledged as a positive addition to American agriculture and thereby boost its lobbying power. Haney, an RFC member, calls aquaponics, “the answer” to generating year-round income for farmers constrained by the seasons.
Cufone is currently working on a map of the larger outfits, and reaching out to organizations that keep track of the smaller ones. So far, estimates put the number of commercial aquafarms operating nationally at between 40 and 100, although Cufone says it’s likely higher if one includes backyard operations.
Cufone’s work comes at a critical juncture for American aquaculture. For over a decade, the USDA Organic label, through some third-party licensing organizations like Oregon Tilth, has been conferred upon compliant aquaponic and hydroponic farms. Recently, traditional “dirt first” organic farmers have been pushing the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to make aquaponics and hydroponics ineligible for the Organic label.
Some opposed to the change, such as Maine farmer and author Eliot Coleman, say that food that isn’t grown in “biologically active, fertile soil” doesn’t deserve to use the moniker for which generations of farmers have built up a market.
One of the biggest targets of some dirt-first lobbyists is scaled-up operations that raise hydroponic produce in places like Mexico. They say these vast international operations siphon off revenue from American farmers as they drive down the price of organics. Aquaponic farmers, who claim to use best organic practices and challenge the assertion that their farms do not give back directly to the soil, may be caught in the crossfire of a bigger, thornier debate.
“Aquaponic farmers employ microbiology in their systems, in the same way dirt farmers do, and the waste [from it] builds beautiful topsoil,” says Hasey. In the process, “We grow copious amounts of food without taxing the land. It’s incredibly sustainable.” Sustainability is also Cufone’s virtue of choice when discussing aquaponics—both for lowering water and energy usage in produce growing as well as for raising fish. Cufone began her career in fisheries management and has seen aquaponics develop to the point where she thinks it now provides a viable, clean way for fishermen to grow some of the protein they can no longer catch in depleted oceans.
Stacy Tollefson is a professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at the University of Arizona. Along with Cufone, she was part of the most recent task force advising NOSB on the organic certification of aquaponic and hydroponic farms. The way she sees it, what organics-seeking consumers want most of all is pesticide-free produce.
And water-based systems “open the doors to more people getting access to that,” she says. “The traditional agriculture approach says organics have to be grown in soil—but that was when there was no other way to do it. There are still old-school philosophical folks who say, ‘You’re not saving the soil!’ But I think we are doing a lot to not damage the earth.” (The dirt first response to this: That still doesn’t mean it fits the historical definition of organic; they’re contemplating changing their own labeling if hydroponic and aquaponic farmers continue to be able to earn “organic” status.)
Cufone agrees with Tollefson, and also cites what she sees as another overlooked benefit to aquaponics. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture is always talking about attracting new people to farming. Well, this is one part of the industry that’s growing,” she says. She hopes RFC will play a pivotal role in bringing aquaponics further into the mainstream. “When I first learned about recirculating systems, I brought a bunch of people together in a room and had a conversation about the viability of the industry. At the end of two days I asked, ‘If you had $1 million, what would you do?’ And every one of them said, ‘Start an organization that would advertise our industry, and help change policy about it.’”
In the six years since RFC was founded, Hasey has come to rely on it to represent him and his needs. “As a farmer, I spend all day with my head in the plants. I just don’t have time to go out and campaign and get involved in issues,” he says. Both he and Cufone hope the organization will provide their segment of the farm industry with the necessary traction to grow, and thrive.
Top photo courtesy of Recirculating Farms Coalition.