By Phoebe Ho, Yan Zhonghua
TORONTO, June 27 (Xinhua) -- There's lush green lettuce, plump tomatoes and fragrant basil all growing in a bed of water in a 2, 000-sq-ft (about 186 square meters) greenhouse in Toronto, the largest city of Canada.
It's all part of a pilot project an urban farmer is hoping will help showcase the benefits of a waste-free system which combines aquaculture and hydroponics. He's hoping the large-scale commercial aquaponics farm he built nearly two months ago will help persuade others into making the switch from conventional farming.
"We're hoping to get connected with more farming groups in Ontario and help them access aquaponics and sort of get involved and start looking at it as another solution to food security," project manager Evan Bell explained.
Bell, who works for Waterfarmers, a professional aquaponic consulting group, said this new city gardening movement can help farmers grow lots of food in a small space by creating a perfect ecologically balanced system.
All the magic lies within two big tanks sitting in the centre of the greenhouse. Those tanks contain about 300 fishes, the key ingredient for creating this nutrient-rich environment.
The idea is simple. All Bell needs to do is to feed the fish and constantly check the water's pH level. The fish poops in the water, which then creates the nutrients necessary for plants to grow.
"We have one pump that runs the whole system, and so the water from the fish tanks come to the grow beds and the troughs and the plants take up all that nutrients and purify the water and then that water is returned to the fish tank as clean water for the fish," he said. "So as long as you keep feeding the fish, you end up fertilizing the plants at the same time."
Bell said the 13,000 liters of water in the tanks is constantly filtered and cycles between the fishes and the plants. Using aquaponics not only reduces labor and waste, but it also creates the ideal product for consumers.
"Aquaponics is a very efficient method of farming, so it uses about 10 percent of the water that traditional soil-based agriculture uses and we can carefully control what we're putting into our food," he said. "So if we have organic fish feed for the fish then we know that what the plants are growing from are very healthy and it's organic fertilizers."
The method is mostly used in arid climates where fertile soil is scarce. But Bell said if done correctly, it's something that can be implemented anywhere, even in Canada where winter conditions are extreme. All it needs is a bit of tweaking.
For example, Bell said they've installed heaters in the greenhouse to keep the temperature stable. And instead of using tilapia, during the winter they'll be switching to fishes like trout, which are more tolerant to the cold temperatures.
And it's well worth the work, according to Bell, who believes that aquaponics significantly increases crop growth. He said within a few weeks since they first started the farm, they've already had several harvests, including the most recent one where they harvested about 500 heads of lettuce and several pounds of basil.
"I think there's more research to be done just to really show that that's the case, but we've definitely seen that it grows 20 to 40 percent faster than you know, just soil agriculture, but that's because the food is essentially fertigated so all the water has lots of nutrients in it for the plants so you're like constantly fertilizing the plants from day one," he said. "So that we really found really kickstarts a lot of the growth really well. "
All the food that's grown at Bell's farm is harvested by their partner Fresh City Farms, an urban farm and farming network, which delivers groceries right to their customer's doors. And even though it's not practiced at Bell's farm at the moment, they could also cull the fish for an additional source of income.
There are many small-scale aquaponic farms in the city right now, but most are just hobby farms running in people's basements. There are also a couple of larger ones in the city, but they're mainly used to teach high school students. Bell said the number of large-scale commercial operations are limited across the country.
"There's a few more in Alberta, as well there's a couple in Quebec. A lot of the original research for aquaponics was actually done in Alberta at the University of Lethbridge, so they have a really big research farm, but in terms of commercial operations there's probably fewer than a dozen in Canada right now."
Fresh City Farm's founder Ran Goel said the aquaponics side only makes up about five percent of their total production right now. But if things go according to plan they're hoping to build a larger greenhouse for the aquaponics farm. Because, as he sees it, that's where the future of farming is headed.
"I think a lot of areas in the world where there was never good soil to begin with, so they're desert countries, or they're killing their soil, which is happening in big parts of China, the U.S., parts of Canada too, because too much pesticides, too much fertilizer, the transition will be obvious," Goel said. "That'll be the only way they'll be able to grow food in a big way."