Farming for the future is happening at Utah State University. USU has its own fully functioning aquaponics system–a system capable of growing a variety of crops more sustainably than other growing methods. The system is ran by five main components: the system includes a sump tank, fish tank, swirl filter, grow beds and LED grow lights. These elements combine together to raise fish and grow plants at the same time.
The sump tank houses the water that is pumped into the fish tank and used throughout the entire system. The fish live is a large sized tank so they can grow along with the plants. The swirl filter is the middle component that takes the solids from the fish tanks and sends the nutrient filled water to the plants. The grow beds are where the plants grow and the bacteria and nutrients feed them. Finally the LED grow lights provide special lighting that help the plants thrive.
With help from students, Gary Stewardson, professor of technology and engineering, built the self circulating system. Stewardson learned how to run the system from youtube and just reading books. The system is fairly simple and run itself well enough that most people can build one themselves.They created a version that would sustain itself and only need to be monitored by him and the other students.
“We have to constantly monitor the quality of the water to keep the system in balance. We monitor everyday even Christmas,” Stewardson said. The system at USU used koi fish. It takes the waste from the fish and uses to as nutrients for the plants. The fish are fed with an automatic feeder and the plants are watered by a flood and drain system. The lights run on timers, so Stewardson gets to watch the growth occur day by day. For Stewardson he is particularly proud of the fish in the system.
“If you are worried about spilling water or killing fish you shouldn’t be doing this. I’ve been doing this two years and haven’t lost one fish. I’m quite proud of that fact,” Stewardson said.
To always keep the system in check many students take turns recording the ph levels and status of the fish. Over the summer Jessie Oliver, technology and engineering education major, took care of the entire system all by himself. He said this was a great learning opportunity for him. “It was a cool learning experience. I got to make the fish feeder and I realized how diligent you have to be. If you mess up it can be hard to fix it. We used litmus paper to test the ph and that was inaccurate. It took me the entire summer to get the ph back to a safe level. We didn’t lose any fish, but the plants got a little messed up,” Oliver said.
Currently the grow beds are growing tomatoes, peppers, chard and brussel sprouts. The technology can be used to grow a wide variety of plants.
Due to the system’s ability to control the temperature and oxygen in the water, the plants can really grow well. According to professor Stewardson it is a “efficient way to create a protein in someone’s diet.”
The system is much more sustainable than traditional farming as well. An aquaponics systems uses only about 10% of the water that would be used in a traditional field farming. This technology can be used in places where there is not a lot of water or poor soil and it will still yield a large amount of produce. You could feed a family or provide enough for one person.
Emma Larson, technology and engineering major said “It’s hard because it’s a little expensive to get started, but I think it will be alot more accessible for individuals. You could have a small system with goldfish and grow lettuce year round in the future.”
The possibilities are endless when it comes to implementing aquaponics. You can grow tomatoes in the winter or have kale year round. Oliver believes that there could be several uses for aquaponics in the future. One of his ideas included restaurants using the system to have quick access to really gourmet or specialized ingredients for dishes. He also thinks that it would be useful in highly populated urban areas or really disaster prone areas. The biggest place he believe aquaponics will be used is in the classroom.
“It’s the right blend of technology and good old fashioned hard work that a lot of kids will learn where plants and food actually comes from,” Oliver said.
This is one of Stewardsons main goals for this technology is to have it be accessible for kids and teachers in schools. The aquaponics system covers most of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and will keep students interest. Stewardson also hopes that aquaponics will bring more females into the field. Emma Larson feels that she provides a unique aspect to the field.
“I think sometimes I bring a different perspective to look at different ways to solve problems. But it’s fun to be surrounded by other people who are passionate about it no matter who they are,” Larson said.
With the many benefits of aquaponics it is possible that there will be more systems put in place in the future. Stewardson and his students will paving the way for increased learning and education about aquaponics to youth for a more sustainable future.