Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 026 - Aquaponics featuring JP Knobloch and Tim Hydar

JD Knobloch: Aquaponics is, you know, relatively, new to many individuals that aren’t really embedded in the farming community, especially the sustainable farming community. There’s a lot of education involved. That’s what farmer's markets and really grassroots was a great place to start because you’re interacting directly with the consumer and they want to know the farmer, they want to know what you’re doing. And they're just blown away, because they’ve never heard of this method of farming before and all the various benefits to it.

Mallory Daily: This is our Farms Our Future, a podcast by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. This time on the show: aquaponic experts discuss growing food indoors while saving water and minimizing waste. That was JP Knobloch, co-owner of Straw Hat Aquaponics in Ferguson, Missouri. He’ll be speaking with one of his business partners, Tim Hydar. Here’s Tim:

Tim Hydar: So aquaponics is the combination of hydroponics and aquaculture. It’s creating a system—a balanced system—that utilizes all of nature’s bacterias and nitrifying processes to grow produce. It’s really very simple but also very complex at the same time.

Mallory Daily: According to our guests, there’s about as many variations of aquaponic systems as there are fish in the sea. Here’s JD again:

JD Knobloch: And while I wouldn't say there's one right way to do it, it just depends on what you're trying to achieve, what your situation is, what kind of temperatures you're dealing with. You know, are you going to do it indoors or outdoors or in a greenhouse? And what are you trying to produce? Are you focused on growing fish? So there's no real one right way to go about it. And it's just interesting to see all the different results and, you know, the industry's growing and, you know, more information is available. It's just great.

Mallory Daily: Although many aquaponic experts incorporate the latest water pump and movement technologies in their systems today, people have been feeding their communities with these methods for thousands of years.

JD Knobloch: So the way I like to look at aquaponics is we've been doing it for thousands of years. It goes back to rice patty farming. Think of those little Betas that you get in the pet store. That's essentially what's swimming around in those rice patties and fertilizing the rice as it grows. And so it's just kind of interesting that it has, in its most basic concept, existed for thousands of years. It didn't need much human intervention to be successful either. Now, here we are today really pushing the boundaries of technology and taking something that's been around for so long and just improving upon it to impressive scales. Your fish serve as the engine. So, you know, typically you're going to see a tank or multiple tanks that depending on the density of fish that you're focused on and what you're growing that keep the water at a good balance for the nutrient absorption of the plants. And so what the plants serve as, you know, and this could look a whole bunch of different ways, but essentially the plants are filtering the water for the fish as it returns, typically back to the fish tank. So it's this closed ecosystem, water flowing from fish tank to some sort of a containment mechanism that holds the plants and essentially back to the fish tank. And there may be some tanks in between depending on the setup, but it's kind of interesting. It's almost like, you know, like going into an aquarium that is also capable of producing a lot of food.

Tim Hydar: And the aquaponics set up will look different at every single installation. I've had three setups and no two have looked alike. I've seen 15 or 20 setups and no two have ever looked alike. A lot of similarities between all of them and a lot of differences between all of them. We use deep water culture, which does not use a growing media like lava rock or Hyroton, which is very popular for home growers and it's very heavy. It works very well. It's porous material, so there's a whole lot of surface area, for the bacteria to do what they need to do. But we use deep water culture where we have rafts floating on top of water and then the roots are suspended in the water as the filtration for the fish. So there's a lot of different ways it can look. We can also have nutrient film technology, which is very thin, almost rain gutter-type troughs and that's very popular among strawberries. You can use dutch buckets in aquaponic systems. You can do flood and drain. You can have high-density versus low-density. With the high density systems, those are more along the lines of people who want to harvest the fish--raise the fish, and then harvest them for the meat and low-density, which is a low density of fish. That's just using the fishes fertilizers. You're not going to harvest them, you're just going to feed the fish and they're going to do what they need to do. Then you can also get into aeroponics, which is a different application. So there's probably 10 different applications for aquaponics and 10 different variations to do each of those applications. So I've seen a lot of unique setups and they're all equally as exciting to me because someone's doing something different for the type of fish that they have or the type of plant that they're growing or the type of environment they're in. If they're in Colorado in the mountains, they're gonna have a different setup than someone in Florida on the beach. So, yeah, that could look a lot of different ways, especially if you're comparing home growing with educational or university growing versus commercial growing. Each of those have different purposes and they're going to be set up differently and managed differently. So each setup essentially has its own personality.

JD Knobloch: There's so much variety out there. I wouldn't say there's one right way to do it. It just depends on what you're trying to achieve, what your situation is. What kind of temperatures you're dealing with. Are you going to do it indoors or outdoors or in a greenhouse? What are you trying to produce? Are you focused on growing fish? And it just, it's just amazing how many different ways to go about it. So it's just, there's no real one right way to go about it. And it's just interesting to see all the different results and you know, the industry is growing and, you know, more information is available. It's just great.

Tim Hydar: And more technology is available, too. If you're doing indoor growing, we have better lighting now than we did five years ago. And we're going to have better lighting next year than we have right now. You know, LEDs are making gains by leaps and bounds, so that's exciting. You know, water pump and water movement technology is also improving. So there's a lot of good stuff out there for home growers, commercial growers, everyone. And what actually helped us cultivate our system to the way we have it set up now was when we went out into our market, we were meeting chefs and people who would be our customers and asking them what they wanted and they could not get here. Because one benefit that we found with our system, especially being indoors, is that we can run it year round with the same quality and we can also grow a large variety of different types of plants. We can grow lettuce, which like it cold, right next to something that likes it in the Caribbean. But the plants get what they need from the water and they all seem to thrive. Now, there are a few plants that don't thrive that we have found, one of them being spinach and I believe, but for the most part, everything that we've wanted to grow, we can get to grow. And then we do, you know, growth tests, density tests. We make sure that we understand our yields and our planning and our growth times and what the chemistry of the water would look like for that plant's top growth. But it's really quite a dynamic system if you're looking at what to grow. And I know that was a big part of us deciding what to do was the market that we were serving. So what do you think was one of the toughest things about creating our customer base here in St Louis being a new grower?

JD Knobloch: A couple couple of things, I would say. First, aquaponics is, you know, relatively new to many individuals that aren't really embedded in the farming community, especially sustainable farming. And so there was a lot of education on just, you know, exactly what we've kind of talked through so far. And that's a lot to talk through with each customer. So there's a lot of education involved. And so that's why farmer's markets and grassroots was a good place to start, because you're interacting directly with the consumer and they want to know, they want to know the farmer, they want to know what you're doing. And they're just blown away, because they'd never heard of this, you know, method of farming before and all the various benefits to it. It's just kinda crazy to them. So, you know, there's a little bit of a "wow factor" too when you're like, oh, I ate some aquaponic produce today for the first time. 

And so other challenges--you know, as far as getting in front of chefs, I don't think from a standpoint of how it was grown was so much important as it was a local producer and it was good quality. Restaurants want consistent, good quality, that's reliable. And so that really what's important. You know, we were able to demonstrate that with our current customers. But you know, as far as whether it was grown aquaponic, I don't know that that was, you know, of importance to chefs at the time. And, you know, I think it's interesting and I think they think it's interesting, but you know, when you're dealing with the direct consumer, that's really when you reach the end goal of providing that education and understanding and the need for it.

Tim Hydar: Yeah, I agree. I think, the chefs were definitely skeptical at times when we said we were a new farm here in town., because they've had partnerships in the past that would have great produce certain times of the year, then not great produce other times of the year. So the chefs who lent us their ear and listened to us, we able to win them over. We still have them as customers because we do have consistent quality throughout the year. So yeah, that was definitely a major challenge, what I think in the end has been a great item for us to hang our hat on with the chefs once we have proved ourselves. And that goes right in line with, you know, the indoor growing and the technology evolution that we're seeing with the lights.

JD Knobloch: Absolutely. So Tim, what role does education play in success in aquaponics for both children and adults? I know we talked, you know, a little bit about it, touched on it from having to bring our product to market. But what role does education really play?

Tim Hydar: So I think education around aquaponics itself as an industry is important because there are a lot of calculators out there that will tell you if you set up a 12 foot by 10 foot grow facility, you're going to be a millionaire in a year and a half, which is great to think of and have as a pipe dream. But we've heard multiple stories of people being uneducated about aquaponics diving in head-first with large amounts money or large setups and even if they can grow the produce, then all of a sudden they have this overhead they can't support because they can't sell 600 heads of lettuce every week or 2000 pounds of kale as soon as they start growing it. So I think education about the local market and education about aquaponics itself is really important for anyone interested in doing any type of agriculture, not just aquaponics, because if the market's not there to support you, then you're gonna have a really hard time doing what you're doing long term.

JD Knobloch: Absolutely. I like what you talked about there at the end about the market supporting you and that's just such an important factor when getting started or really just anyone looking to get into the commercial side of it. You know, it's important to start small and start slow and test varieties of things that grow well on your system that also are received well for your own consumer. And if you have the right setup, the right climate and the right market for something that's growing well in your system, you've got a winning formula. So it's just so important to understand that you may think you're going into this and I want to grow a million heads of lettuce, but that might not be what your market supports and they might support, you know, a hundred pounds of Kale. Now you're growing a hundred pounds of Kale. So, you know, it's important to just be flexible and understand that you can't predict everything going into it.

Tim Hydar: That does bring up one benefit of aquaponics, too, is that if you do decide to pivot what you're growing, you don't have to worry as much about your soil health or depletions of growing the same thing over and over. Because we don't have crop rotations. Whenever we're planning something, if it doesn't work, we can change it out. And then five to six weeks later, we have a completely different farm growing, something completely different. So the time savings with growing things and the ease of switching out what we grow, I think definitely adds to some of the success that we've had and seen and support from the community because they don't want the lettuce and they want the kale, then we start growing the kale. So that's another benefit of aquaponics being so versatile.

JD Knobloch: Absolutely. So, so what are some other benefits, would you say, that aquaponics encompasses? Not necessarily compared to traditional farming, but all methods of farming? Just what's some of the big overall benefits of going this route?

Tim Hydar: So there's a lot of benefits. The shelf life of our produce that we found. We had some Ridgeline lettuces that we harvested and then put into the fridge and each week we would check it and we had, you know, six weeks of crispy lettuce. So that was pretty cool. We don't have to weed. We don't have to pick any weeds. We don't have worry about bugs because we're inside. And that's unique to our build. A lot of growers do aquaponics outdoors and they still have a lot of the same impacting factors as conventional farmers. But you know, we are inside so we don't have bugs. We don't use chemicals to spray, no herbicides, no pesticides, which is also true for outdoor aquaponics because when those petroleum-based sprays, those harmful sprays get on the plants, when they get into the water, that is harmful to the fish and that can kill your fish very easily. So if you use herbicides or pesticides in aquaponic setups the chances of messing up the ecosystem are very likely. So that's why it's said that growing aquaponics could be one of the cleanest forms of growing because you can't use herbicides and pesticides that are harmful to the environment. So that's a huge benefit. You know what you're getting when you buy something from aquaponic farms.

JD Knobloch: Absolutely. You know, some other benefits I would tag along there, Tim, is just resource consumption. So just the little amount of water it really takes to grow that amount of food. Depending on your setup, you could have a very dense planning situation producing a good amount of produce in a small space and you're essentially just using this water that is recycling and you know, you want to top it off from time-to-time, but it really uses very little water to grow a lot of produce, which is huge. And it goes back to kind of why we were looking into this. Some other benefits--you've got the protein aspect of it, too. So you have your plants, and they're growing as a byproduct of cleaning in the water and as your fish grow and get bigger, you know, if that's the kind of system you're into, you can actually harvest protein from it as well. I know a lot of individuals who are interested in taking these applications to food deserts and countries that can use this kind of situation to improve. With food shortages and water shortages, the potential is great.

Tim Hydar: I agree. And when you do set up a small system somewhere, you could, and people do all the time, set it up for solar power, because you don't need a whole lot of energy to run these systems if you set it up right. So if someone's interested in becoming an aquaponic farmer, you know, they want to set up a system, what type of pointers do we have for new growers? Because we can walk through a few system errors that we've made on the small-scale that if we would've made it on a large scale, could have been detrimental.

JD Knobloch: Absolutely. So I think he sent me up there well, because the first thing I'm going to say: you need to start small. You're going to make mistakes, especially early on. You're going to learn a lot of things along the way. But think of how much that's going to cost you. If you have, you know, $1,000 system, a $100,000 system, a million dollar system. The smaller you start, the less those mistakes are going to cost you. And those mistakes are valuable to make. Because I can't imagine not making any mistake and just, you know, expecting everything to go well and you set yourself up for an unexpected situation. So starting small is important. Get a tabletop system or something small in the garage. Do something small in the backyard. And just really kind of get used to it. The next point I would say is there's so much information out there, so many different ways to do it. You know, kinda start with understanding your situation from a climate standpoint, humidity standpoint, and, you know, just kind of start with a product that you want to try and look up those parameters and information out there that's more suited for what you want to do and what your situation is. What would you add to that, Tim?

Tim Hydar: So a great place to start for new growers if you're not sure out of the 10 types of aquaponic setups that are out there, which one would be best for you? We do have a group on Facebook, actually it's called Midwest Aquaponics. There's 1,500 home aquaponic enthusiasts on there that share their ideas, their how-tos, the mistakes they've made, tips. There's a couple of commercial growers in there, Too. People who have tours to farms, there's educational institutions in there. And it's just a sharing community. When someone says, "Hey, my fish have this under their fins. What is this?" Three or four people reply with what they think it is and their remedy. There's also resources on there to help facilitate the remedy. If you do have something out of whack, you might need to add something to your system, some chelated iron or what not. There are resources there to help you with that. Because with aquaponics, there are a few things that you have to add from time-to-time. But it's very minimal. If you have good fish food, the fish add the ammonia to the system that you need to start the microbial chain of nitrogen cycle starting. For starters, it's a great place to start--Midwest Aquaponics on Facebook because there's all kinds of people from all different levels, all different backgrounds. Everyone across the Midwest, different climates. You can find someone in Wisconsin who knows what type of Perch is best to do outdoors there or indoors. There are people there in Tennessee who have farms. There's people in, you know, Florida, Northern Texas that do home aquaponics, commercial aquaponics. And they're more than willing to help beginners because we were beginners at one point.

JD Knobloch: Yeah, absolutely.

Mallory Daily: That’s it for this week. You were listening to JP Knobloch and Tim Hydar of Straw Hat Aquaponics in Ferguson, MO. We’ll link to their work in our show notes. This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, MO. Tim Pilcher is our producer, and I’m your host Mallory Daily. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform, like iTunes or Stitcher. We’re releasing two new shows each month. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at ARE is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the view of the USDA or SARE. Thank you for listening! We will catch you next time on our last episode that airs on May 3rd.