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Aquaponics gaining attention as a viable ag practice

MIDDLEBURY, IN — In this day of exciting innovations and rediscovered techniques, creativity is common as people are combining the two and presenting new sustainable operations. Aquaponics, while not a new idea, has been getting a lot more attention as a viable agricultural practice. Greenhouse owners are finding a lot to like about raising plants on water and fish waste.

Kenneth and Lucy Hochstedler of Middlebury, IN are members of this group as they have had an aquaponics operation for a little over two years. It is located in the north end of their greenhouse and is run by a solar power system with a backup generator. While they have grown a number of different plants with the aquaponics as the main nutrient provider, much of it has been appreciated by their family while they sell plants from their greenhouse. 

“The tomato plant is going on two years in July and it was totally grown in the aquaponics,” Lucy said. “We also raise tilapia in the large tank and that is where the waste comes from.”

Their system is established enough that they only add pellet fish food and the rest of the process works to the benefit of the plants. The tomato plant that Lucy mentioned has grown to mammoth proportions and now takes up approximately half of the tank. One of the obvious signs of an aquaponic grown plant is the extensive root system. 

At the Hochstedler’s greenhouse, tilapia is not the only fish working for them. They also employ a large number of mosquito fish who reside in the plant tank. These fish live on the algae within the roots of the plants and in the water along with any larvae from a variety of insects.

“They really help control the population of mosquitoes,” Lucy said. “The plant tank where they live is 4 foot by 16 foot and is about one foot high. The other fish live in a stock tank lined with food-grade plastic and insulated on the outside to maintain a temperature of 70 degrees.”

The couple found that by forming another greenhouse within the larger one the temperature is much higher in the winter and supports some plant life. They are also proof that fancy setups or large structures are not needed to have an aquatic operation.

Fish waste water has been the basis for FFA Agriscience projects as Branch Area Career Center FFA member Jacie King continues her research on the using this under-appreciated resource. King conducted her six-week experiment using well water, Miracle-Gro, and fish waste water on spinach plants to determine which was the most beneficial. She began using the liquid additives once the plants began to appear and continued for four weeks. King then evaluated her results and presented her findings at the Michigan State FFA AgriScience Fair.

“The fish waste is a better fertilizer than the other two,” King said. “The spinach plants were healthier and greener with the fish waste water.” 

She was awarded the top prize in the state for the individual junior high plant science entry. King is continuing her work this summer by trying her experiment outside and preparing to apply to compete at the national level. Through the FFA program, she is sharing her project with the community and exposing people to another way of recycling and using what nature provides.