There is something fishy taking place at Brogue Hydroponics in Brogue, Pa., and according to Bob and Jesse Kilgore, it’s all by design.
A few years ago, Brogue started expanding into aquaponics, a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics that relies on the use of live fish to generate nutrients for plant production.
Bob Kilgore, co-owner of Brogue Hydroponics with his wife, Nancy, immediately became intrigued with the concept of aquaponics when he first learned about it at a CropKing conference about 10 years ago. Since then, along with their son Jesse, the Kilgore family has turned it into a new production and marketing opportunity that is on the path to being both sustainable and profitable.
Shift To Aquaponics Was A Natural Fit
In the 30-plus years Brogue Hydroponics has been in production, its target customer base has shifted from wholesalers to restaurants to farmers’ markets. Today, while restaurants remain a key audience, the bulk of Brogue’s sales come from farmers’ markets. “We do two year-round indoor farmers’ markets, as well as seasonal outdoor markets in the summer,” Bob says.
This growth in farmers’ market sales means more direct communication with consumers asking for sustainable, locally produced items, which made aquaponics a natural fit for Brogue Hydroponics.
“Even from a non-economic standpoint, it was exciting to grow fish,” Bob says. “The sustainability of it is attractive, and the prospect of having locally grown fish and offering them as a product has helped turn it into a niche market for us.”
Jesse echoes these thoughts, noting that “lots of people are interested in it. It captures attention and gets them interested in what you’re doing. It’s good publicity and PR.”
The shift to aquaponics, says Bob, was also a natural fit because there were not a lot of structural changes required. “Because we were already in hydroponics, we weren’t starting from scratch. We had the systems in place and wanted to add to what we had.”
In aquaponics systems, the fish tanks are under the grow beds, so you’re able to feed your fish and grow your plants together.
“With our system, we are simply using the same amount of space we would be using for hydroponic production, so we’re adding another level of productivity out of the greenhouse without adding any more space or overhead costs,” Jesse says.
Choosing The Best System
When it came time to expand into aquaponics, Bob chose to hire a consultant: Bevan Suits at AquaPlanet. Suits worked with Brogue Hydroponics on choosing the production system that best fit what they wanted to accomplish, as well as choosing which fish to grow.
Suits says there are basically two schools of aquaponics. The “raft” system is the dominant commercial model, based on the work of James Rakocy at the University of the Virgin Islands. The “flood/drain” method (this is the system in place at Brogue Hydroponics) was established at North Carolina State University by Mark McMurtry and, according to Suits, “is widely perceived to be suitable for small-scale hobby systems.” However, Suits notes that the flood/drain system was initially developed as a large-scale, greenhouse-integrated design, with reduced costs and complexity. “It’s a great design.”
Bob says the flood/drain system was simple to build and has been easy to maintain. The grow bed is filled with stones that act as a filter, similar to an ebb-and-flow system but with stones instead of perlite.
“We have to wash the stones about twice a year, but overall the system has been operating well for several years, and with very little tweaking,” Bob says. “All we do is feed the fish and add a small amount of iron in the system.”
Match Your Fish To Your Crop
Both the Kilgores and Suits say there is no exact science for matching the types of fish and crops you want to grow. For example, growing basil and tilapia together seems to work well, says Jesse, because they are both warm water-loving crops. On the other hand, “some crops may not do as well if you need to heat your water,” says Bob. “We grow trout with cilantro, because we are cooling the water in the height of summer, and this keeps the trout happy and also makes for a great environment for the cilantro.”
This would be true for any fish that prefers cool waters and plants that thrive in cooler environments, such as most lettuces and greens. “That’s not to say that you couldn’t grow lettuce with tilapia,” Bob says, “but you may have to meet in the middle in a zone that is a little cool for the fish and a little warm for the plants.”
Some systems would be incompatible, for example, trout and tomatoes or cucumbers. In the end, it might come down to simple trial and error. “Our striped bass do well with basil and parsley beds,” Bob says. “We heat that water to 70 degrees, and it will sometimes get even warmer in the middle of summer. I don’t think lettuce would be happy with that, but the basil loves it.”
The Future Of Aquaponics Is Exciting
Aquaponics may look like a fad, says Suits, but it has been extensively researched, and can produce fast and high volume of a variety of crops. “It has been shown in studies (bit.ly/1zY8hUy) to exceed hydroponics in yields and can be certified organic. The fish add a wonderful living component to an engineered system.”
Making the leap of adding fish to a greenhouse is not difficult, says Suits. “Scaling up into food production does require some careful planning for business development, engineering and training. Daily operations consist of monitoring system levels, planning and processing the flow of seed starts and harvested crops.”
However, the long-term value of year-round vegetable and fish production in every city is very big. “One grocery chain, with 15 stores, might need at least 4,000 pounds of tomatoes per week, year round,” Suits says. “Existing local growers can only cover a fraction of that per year.
“For aquaponics to succeed requires real farming experience and know-how,” says Suits. “For the next generation of farm kids, aquaponics could be just the thing.”
For the individual grower, Jesse Kilgore says it simply makes for an exciting future. “If you can make money off fish, it can help increase the profitability of your operation. Sustainability is also a factor, as space for agriculture production becomes tighter,” Jesse says. “If you can grow protein and vegetables in an efficient space and system, this can help feed people. That’s the type of thing that excites us and our customers, as well.”
Best Fish And Crops For Aquaponics
The fish and plants you select for your aquaponic system should have similar needs as far as temperature and pH, according to Nelson & Pade. There will always be some compromise to the needs of the fish and plants, but the closer they match, the more success you will have.
As a general rule, warm fresh-water fish and leafy crops such as lettuce and herbs will do the best. In a system heavily stocked with fish, you may have luck with fruiting plants such as tomatoes and peppers.
Ways To Learn More
Because the commercial application of aquaponics is still relatively new to the greenhouse industry, there is a lot to learn. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available to you.
• Consultants are a great resource. Bevan Suits is with AquaPlanet LLC, and on an international level, Suits says Murray Hallam (Aquaponics.net.au) is considered the “Steve Irwin of aquaponics.”
• Training curricula is being formalized on a government level in Australia, based on the work of Murray Hallam. It is being adapted for the U.S. by the Ingenuity Innovation Center in Oregon. Training will cover the science, operations and food safety practices.
• Industry suppliers such as CropKing, Pentair Aquatic Eco-Systems, Farmtek and Nelson & Pade offer equipment, supplies, technical support and training classes both in person and online.
• Suits is also working with Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Ore., to design and install aquaponics equipment at the college to demonstrate the value of this type of system. Students will be able to learn more about the demands and benefits of producing fish and vegetables in unison.