Aquaponics is a new thing at Trinidad State
Valley Campus / August 23, 2019 / by Margaret Sanderson
Trinidad State has long had an aquaculture program, which focuses on raising fish. But this fall there’s a twist. Aquaponics takes the process one step further. Instructor Ben Webster’s new program uses the waste from the fish raising process to fertilize plants.
“Aquaponics is an emerging industry,” said Webster. “There’s a lot of interest and a lot of momentum. I thought it would be something to capitalize on. Being pro-ag and pro-fish why not converge the two and use fish to grow plants?” Aquaponics uses only 1/10 the water traditional agriculture does. The same water can be used indefinitely, and the only water replacement needed is caused by evaporation. Otherwise the water is recirculated and used over and over.
Restaurants across the country are using the synergy of aquaculture to provide not only fish but just-picked salad greens. This saves not only shipping and handling costs, but makes the meals exceptionally fresh. Greenhouse Management and Aquaponics 101 have been added to the aquaculture curriculum. To start, students at Trinidad State can earn an aquaponics certificate in a yearlong program, but Webster hopes to expand it into a two-year degree.
Before teaching aquaculture at Trinidad State, Webster managed River Bend Trout Farm. His initial exposure to aquaponics happened at the annual aquaculture meetings held at Mt. Princeton, near Buena Vista. There he heard aquaponic experts, JD and Tanya Sawyer with Aquaponics Source in Denver, share their aqua farming experiences. Webster has “kept his ear to the ground” noticing an increase in interest in aquaponics.
According to The Aquaponic Source, “fish eat and produce ammonia. Beneficial bacteria convert the ammonia into nutrients. Plants absorb this natural fertilizer and the water is continuously recirculated through the system.”
In aquaponics, the fish are usually kept in a separate water tank. The fish wastewater, minus the solids, then circulates into another tank or water holding system where plants are growing. The plants absorb nutrients from the fish wastewater while simultaneously purifying that water with their naturally produced bacteria thus creating a symbiotic or interdependent relationship in which each species benefits the other.
In June, Webster, along with some of his students, started tomato and jalapeno seeds in the two aquaponic systems in his classroom. The jalapeno plants are now 1 ½ feet tall and the tomato plants are four to five feet tall. The fish tanks sit below the plants and the water is pumped up to the plant holding tanks and then returned to the fish tanks.
The Aquaponic Source indicates many pros for plants grown in fish wastewater rather than soil. Soil loses fertility with each crop and can be affected by wind, water erosion, and water run-off – not so when using fish wastewater. Fertilizer or compost must be applied each season and achieving the right balance can be challenging – not so with fish wastewater. Managing weeds, insects, and disease, along with application of chemicals and correct water amounts, is time consuming – not so with fish wastewater. Although disease and insects can affect aquaponics, the farming challenges are fewer in comparison to soil-grown plants.
To give the students a wider experience, Webster plans to use several different growing methods. The following are detailed online at The Aquaponic Source: DWC or deep-water culture, also called raft based growing, consists of long foam rafts floating in a channel of water. Plants are placed in holes cut into the foam with their roots hanging in the water. Media-based growing uses an inert (lacking ability or strength to move) media like expanded clay pellets or shale which helps to convert ammonia to nitrates and removes solid wastes using the same system. Webster said the pellets never need to be replaced. In the nutrient film technique (NFT) water flows horizontally through a narrow trough, like a PVC pipe, that has holes drilled along the top of it to hold the plants while their roots hang in the nourishing flowing water. Vertical aquaponics allows the growth of a large amount of food in a very small area. Plants are stacked on top of each other in tower systems and water flows in through the top and through a wicking material and then back into the fish tank below.
Several Valley schools are interested in the program and are networking with Trinidad State to offer concurrent enrollment (where both high school and college credits can be earned at the same time) classes.
Classes began Monday, August 19, but late starts may be allowed on a case-by-case basis. Call Ben Webster at 719-589-7063.