Update: This article has been updated with a note at the end of the article noting that tilapia fish are illegal to grow in Alaska.
In midwinter when Homer seems gray and gloomy, the prospect of fresh vegetables at the Homer Farmers Market can’t come soon enough. Two growers experimenting with aquaponics, the merger of aquaculture with hydroponic gardening, have introduced into local markets something that might seem unimaginable in January: fresh, vibrant green veggies.
At Blood, Sweat and Food in the East Hill area, growers Tony Burgess, his son Beau Burgess and Jenni Medley raise and sell vegetables to Two Sisters Café and The Bagel Shop. Up Baycrest Hill off the Sterling Highway on Saltwater Drive, Sonja Martin Young and Tom Young and their Alaska Aquaponics have taken the community supported agriculture, or CSA, approach, where customers pay $60 a month to get a box of vegetables every week.
Although the two operations differ in approach, they both create a growing cycle where excretions from fish create nutrients for plants and byproducts from plants filter water for fish.
“The fish condition the water for the plants,” Tom Young said. “The plants condition the water for the fish.”
Blood, Sweat and Food is in an 80-square-foot room off the Burgesses’ super insulated, energy-efficient house. Alaska Aquaponics is in a 790-square-foot greenhouse next to the Martin Young and Young’s home facing Kachemak Bay. Walking into either is like taking a trip to Hawaii: a blast of warm, moist air and an explosion of greenery.
“I like being in here with the garden,” Martin Young said. “Even on a gray day, it feels comfortable. It took care of any seasonable-affective disorder I might have.”
In hydroponics, plants grow suspended in water that has all the nutrients a plant needs. Blood, Sweat and Food uses a dirt-like growing media. The vegetables sit in water-saturated soil made of spruce wood chips, compost and ground oyster shells. Beds are stacked in two rows.
At one end of the growing beds, koi, goldfish and blue tilapia swim in a fish tank in the bottom row. Water flows from the fish tank into a sump tank and is pumped up to the plant beds. The water drains from the plant beds into a bucket where the water gets aerated, putting oxygen back into the water tank for the fish.
Tony Burgess compared the process to the human body. Air comes in through the lungs, nutrients come from the stomach and intestines, and blood takes oxygen and nutrients to the cells to keep them alive and growing.
Key to the process are nature’s little helpers, microbes, which convert nitrite from ammonia — the main chemical in fish urine — into nitrate that can be used by plants. It took about six weeks for enough microbes to make the system work.
Tony Burgess knows all about the importance of microbes. He has a master’s degree in botany and a doctorate in biology, and designed the savannah and thorn scrub sections of Biosphere II, an experiment in Arizona to duplicate a living ecosystem separate from earth. That was a big lesson of Biosphere II.
“All the heavy lifting is done by the microbes,” Tony Burgess said.
Aquaculture for the sale of fish as food is illegal in Alaska, but growing fish as pets is OK. Both operations use fish commonly found in aquariums and fish ponds. Alaska Aquaponics has a fish tank, but it’s temporarily empty after the fish died from an unknown cause. For now the plants are fertilized with fish meal.
At Alaska Aquaponics, Martin Young and Young have been experimenting with several types of growing platforms. In one that’s similar to Blood, Sweat and Food, plants grow in a bed of clay pellets. Water flows over the pellets and drains back into the fish tank. In another growing platform, plants are stuck into foam rafts that float on a big tank. The nutrients and water from the fish tank (when it’s back working) flow into the little pond.
Martin Young and Young also grow plants in towers, a commercial product called ZipGrow, that’s a long, square tube open at each end with a slit. Synthetic material that looks like a scrubby sponge goes in the tube, with plant starts inserted between a folded-over section of the material and sticking out the slit. The towers hang from a rack and water with nutrients dripping through it.
Both operations keep plants growing in the winter with grow lights, either fluorescent lights or more energy-efficient LED lights. Both growers also heat with natural gas.
The result has been a small infusion of winter-grown vegetables into the local market such as kale, dill, carrots, cilantro, Swiss chard, chives, mint and chervil. Medley said she likes the partnership with restaurants. She can meet with chefs and get ideas for crops they might need or tell them what’s in production. They place orders and get vegetables “as fresh as it can be” that day, Medley said.
“It’s nice to go to these restaurants,” she said. “They’re dedicated to making great food.”
At Alaska Aquaponics, four customers right now get the CSA boxes. Martin Young said they hope to produce more and take on new customers in the near future. People can call her to get on a waiting list.
While experimental and innovative, as happened with Homer’s high-tunnel greenhouse boom of a few years ago, aquaponics is working to not only expand the growing season of crops, it’s making food available year-round, fresh and green — even in the dark of winter.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Feb. 12, Alaska Department of Fish and Game sport biologist Scott Ayers, Anchorage, contacted the Homer News and noted that growing tilapia — one of the fish grown at Blood, Sweat and Food — is illegal in Alaska. The Alaska law on finfish farming allows the rearing and sale of ornamental finfish for aquariums or ornamental ponds provided they are not released into state waters and sold as food. Ornamental fish are defined as fish not used for sport fishing or human consumption, such as tropical fish, aquarium fish and goldfish. Because tilapia are raised elsewhere in the world for food, Ayers said it would be illegal to raise that species of fish in Alaska. Ayers said that if aquaponics operations are found to be growing tilapia or other food fish, the department would ask that the fish be destroyed. Tony Burgess, one of the partners in Blood, Sweat and Food with Jenni Medley and his son Beau Burgess, said he would cooperate with Fish and Game and remove and destroy tilapia from their aquaponics operation.
Aquaponics in Homer
Sonja Martin Young and Tom Young
1776 Saltwater Drive
Blood, Sweat and Food
Tony Burgess, Beau Burgess and Jenni Medley
834 Shellfish Avenue
Both operations will do small tours; call to set up times.