MS. REBECCA SHEIR
For this next story, we're going to get out of the cold actually and head to a warm and humid spot in Arlington, Va. It's the headquarters of another caterer, a guy by the name of Joel Thevoz. His facility includes a fish farm and a hydroponic or soil free garden. And the thing about the farm and garden is they're connected to each other in a pretty unusual way. Sabri Ben-Achour has more.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
Walk into Joel Thevoz's Main Event Catering operation in Arlington and you'll see a sleek test kitchen with brushed steel stoves, a wine tasting area, and then in the back...
MR. JOEL THEVOZ
It's a garden inside our warehouse. I mean, we're an old industrial section of town and we happen to have a garden with fish.
It's actually much more than a garden. It's a greenhouse fish-farm combo. It looks like a massive two-story bunk bed with at least four levels. On the upper levels, broad-leafed squash vines spill out the side and around the metal posts holding the thing up. On the bottom bunk are chest high tubs full of auburn colored water.
As you can see here, what we have is a series of fish tanks in which we house tilapia. We have at least 500 full-size fish in the range of 2 to 3 pounds.
Thevoz throws in a few handfuls of little pellets, the fish gobble them up in seconds. This is Thevoz's attempt at a closed loop aquaponics system. What that means is the fish waste feeds the plants, the plants help filter the water for the fish. It's almost self-contained, almost like a little ecosystem.
What happens is the fish excrete their waste and it's an ammonia rich waste. In aquaponics what we do is that we introduce these naturally occurring bacterias which are called nitrobacters to process, to convert, the ammonia into a nitrate and that is the base element of a fertilizer. The plants absolutely, it's like crack for plants and they absolutely love it and this is how you're able to get these beautiful greens with absolutely no soil.
Thevoz climbs 12 feet up a ladder and points to the second level, where a green carpet of seedlings is lit by LED lights.
In here we have arugula, we have chia seeds, we have amaranth, we have lettuces. We probably have 15 different varieties of plants. One of the beautiful things about systems like this, is in a recirculating system there's almost no waste.
Thevoz's goal is to scale this up and one day have aquaponic greenhouses on the roof. He wants to replace the fish pellets with larvae from his compost bins, if he can get approval from the local health department. And he wants this system to provide fish and more vegetables to his catering business. So far he hasn't harvested any fish yet.
I got to tell you that first when I was putting this together, people thought I was nuts. My employees, my spouse, my friends thought I was completely out of my gourd. But I got to say I proved them wrong, I mean, the system is fully functional, it works.
It works, but it isn't economical for Thevoz right now. It'd be cheaper to just buy tilapia and he's getting mostly micro-greens as opposed to vegetables.
MR. STEVEN NEWMAN
If you're trying to market to the person that's going to go to the large grocery store, you're not going to meet that market demand.
Steven Newman is a Greenhouse Crops Extension Specialist at Colorado State University.
You need to focus on a higher end market that's looking for, that's willing to pay the price for locally produced food and these sorts of things.
But there are other ways this could become doable besides simply focusing on shi shi niche high-end markets. Don Bailey is a research specialist at the University of the Virgin Islands Agricultural Experiment Station.
MR. DON BAILEY
It can be economical, it is quite doable.
One of the big reasons why urban agriculture is a difficult proposition is that land and water in the city are expensive compared to their cost in, say, rural Mississippi, where catfish are farmed by the acre. But that's exactly why Bailey thinks aquaponics is a good idea.
The reason we've started studying it in the Virgin Islands is because our land is very expensive. So farmers need to be able to intensify their productive into small parcels of land.
So if you can farm intensively, you can get enough bang for your buck to the system work. For now though, Thevoz says he isn't really worried about the money making angle. It's really more of an experiment.
One of our goals is how to have an efficient vertical farm. So right now it's just trying to mitigate our waste.
And that goal, at least, he's succeeding. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.
Ever wonder what a tilapia micro-greens closed-loop system looks like? Well, consider it your lucky day, we have photos on our website, metroconnection.org.
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