Aquaponics are growing in the area and have recently gained commercial traction as they offer many benefits that are not found within traditional farming. Austin, or Texas in general, is known to have extreme weather. From the 100 degree summers and the unpredictable hail storms, to the numerous floods and long droughts, Austin farms struggle due to these extremities and inconsistencies. Aquaponic models can act as a solution to the challenges that many Central Texas farmers face.
Jack Waite is the founder and president of one of Austin’s large scale aquaponic systems, Agua Dulce. Waite is also the Director of Urban Organics, a nonprofit organization that focuses on sustainable agriculture. Through Agua Dulce, Waite is able to use his knowledge of biology with over ten years of experience in management, finance, and fundraising to run a company that is passionate about maintaining a healthy lifestyle with sustainable, healthy, and delicious food.
Aquaponics is a food production system that relies on fishponds to mimic the natural symbiotic relationship between fish and plants found in lakes, ponds, and rivers. The effluents from aquatic animals are used by plants as food, and the plants in turn purify the water for the fish, creating a balanced system. The result from this controlled environment is clean-water fish and vegetables free of pesticides and herbicides.
Although the concept sounds simple, each component exists in a delicate balance.
“Even organically certified pesticides and herbicides can destroy this balance,” said Waite.
At Agua Dulce Farm, there are over 2,000 fish feeding about 10,000 plants. Waite must constantly monitor the water’s pH level, temperature, and dissolved oxygen content. These levels of water circulation, greenhouse conditions, and types of crops vary depending on the time of year.
“Maintaining an aquaponic system takes a lot of practice to master the art, a lot of studying to master the science, and a lot of patience for all the times you're going to screw it up,” said Waite.
Regardless of the chance for error, health benefits are absolutely worth the amount of time and work that are invested when the practice is finally mastered.
Several Austin restaurants, such as Uchi, Uchiko, Odd Duck, Juiceland, and many other Austin favorites, have latched on to this newer food production system. Agua Dulce provides some restaurants with their incredibly fresh tasting fish, but Waite says the big sellers are the vegetables, especially leafy greens like kale, chard, arugula, leaf lettuces, Bibb lettuces, and Romaine lettuces because they thrive year round in an aquaponic system.
Aside from the health benefits for consumers, aquaponics provide environmental advantages as well as making food production more financially attainable for farmers. These systems surprisingly use 90 percent less water than traditional farming, lowering water costs, yet grow six times more food per square foot. Plants happen to grow twice as fast due to the naturally fortified water from the fish.
Aquaponics are not restricted to commercial farmers and can easily be created and maintained at home. Aquaponics use minimal resources and can be done within a small area any time of the year. This system relies on recycled water and therefore can produce food during droughts or in areas that have little access to water.
Due to this water-reliant process, there is no farmland or fertile soil needed, which also means no weeding. Not only do aquaponic systems preserve water usage and provide year-round food sources, they also use less energy than conventional farming.
Aquaponics use grow lights which rely on alternate energy systems such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric power. No harmful fertilizers are used within these food production systems, which prevents harmful chemicals from running into watershed. Commercial farmers typically use fertilizers and these excess chemicals eventually make their way into our lakes and rivers. Aquaponics eliminate these harmful effects for the environment.
With several health benefits for consumers, financially attainable food production for farmers, and various environmental advantages, maintaining an aquaponics system could become the next popular hobby among Austinites.