2015-10-06 / Front Page

Health-Conscious Couple Establish Aquaponics Farm In Northern Owen

by Michael Stanley
Staff Writer

Steve and Missy Carrell of Ponderosa Aqua Farm are actively working with friends and family to bring their large-scale aquaponics farm to life at their home on rural Ponderosa Road in northern Owen County. (Staff Photo) Steve and Missy Carrell of Ponderosa Aqua Farm are actively working with friends and family to bring their large-scale aquaponics farm to life at their home on rural Ponderosa Road in northern Owen County. (Staff Photo) Steve and Missy Carrell of Ponderosa Aqua Farm are in the process of estab­lishing Owen County’s first aquaponics farm at their Jennings Township home.

Aquaponics refers to any system that combines conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as snails, fish, cray­fish or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivat­ing plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. In normal aquaculture, excre­tions from the animals be­ing raised can accumulate in the water, increasing tox­icity. In an aquaponic sys­tem, water from an aqua­culture system is fed to a hydroponic system where the by-products are broken down by nitrification bac­teria into nitrates and ni­trites, which are utilized by the plants as nutrients, and the water is then recirculat­ed back to the aquaculture system.

“We raise fish and fish waste becomes the nutri­ents for the plants. In a nut­shell, that’s it. The plants clean the water and send it back to the fish,” Steve explained. “What happens within all of that is the ammonia breaks down by nitrifying-bacteria, con­verting the ammonia to nitrates and nitrites. The plants take the nitrates and nitrites and turn it back into nitrogen, to send back clean water. Instead of us­ing chemicals like fertiliz­ers, we use the fish waste. It starts with our non-GMO (Genetically Modified Or­ganisms), organic feed, to the fish, to the waste, to the plant, back to the fish.”

The couple has made significant strides since the winter of 2014 when they constructed a small scale system in the basement of their home at 2632 Ponder­osa Road.

“We’re just looking to eat better and part of it is we have relatives who have so many health issues. Every­one underestimates how important your diet is to your health. I’ve also start­ed to see everyone question what’s in food. That sparked my interest, then we start­ed reading about it, talking and studying,” Steve ex­plained. “We started the system and the next thing you know, we’re taking a class in Florida for a week. We got back and started go­ing. I truly believe our food production has to change and is going to change, not necessarily by big corpora­tions, but by the individuals asking for change. They’re turning the label around, trying to decipher what’s actually in it and if it’s good for them, and realizing it’s not. We have an unbeliev­able lack of nutrients in our food system as a whole and I don’t think people under­stand it.”

Initially, the couple set a lofty goal of eating only what they grew.

“That’s a lot tougher than we thought it was, but there are a lot of products we buy that we have no idea how they’re made,” Steve said. “Just changing the way we eat is a lot of it, we eat a lot of fish and salads now.”

The couple strongly be­lieve aquaponics will play a key role in the future of American farming.

“With normal farm­ing, where you can spray Round-Up directly onto the plant, my opinion is that gets into the plant and it doesn’t go away. Then we ingest it and I think this is part of society’s food and health problems. This is a move towards healthier eat­ing, that’s the goal. I do believe 10 to 20 years from now, we’ll see a much larg­er portion of society’s food grown in this manner.”

The Carrells currently have two of the five large tanks of water that will soon be home to approxi­mately 250 fish, which are expected to reach maturity and be ready for retail sale within six months.

“It depends on how fast we can feed them, which de­pends on how many plants we have growing. So the more plants we have, the faster we can grow fish, the faster we can grow plants,” he said.

Any additional solid waste from the fish is si­phoned off and added to a composite pile used to fer­tilize things like hops for home brewed beer.

The water from the fish flows into four deepwater culture beds where water constantly flows approxi­mately five gallons per min­ute through and back to the fish tanks.

The indoors operation is just one of two aspects of the farm’s initial infrastruc­ture, as the couple is also actively finishing a large greenhouse adjacent to the building, which is also fed the same flow of water.

“It feeds out and drops out into a sump tank that’s in the greenhouse, and it gets sucked back into the holding tank and gravity fed back down to every­thing. So we have one pump that pumps everything, and it actually pushes and sucks the water, so it’s one con­tinuous loop,” Steve said. “We’re trying to achieve a symbiotic relationship be­tween fish and plants, with­out the use of chemicals. We really can’t use chemicals, because it will kill the fish.”

The end result is farm fresh, locally grown, or­ganic produce and restau­rant- quality fish.

“The fish are almost like a by-product; the turn­around on the fish is also a lot longer. We can grow a lot faster than traditional farming, we can grow in about 10 to 15 percent of the space needed for tradi­tional farming, and we can use about 90 percent less water than what traditional farming takes. The reason is the plants are taking the nutrients directly, so there is no waste. If you have a garden, most of the water goes into the ground water. The roots only use what they need, the rest stays in the system and cycles around. We keep adding fish waste to it.”

Missy said the plants will visually let them know what they need to remain healthy.

“It’s watching your plants and knowing what your plants need,” she said. “I think people want to eat healthy, they want that change. We’re getting calls, and we haven’t even opened our doors. Every day is a milestone for us, last week we got the water and prob­ably this week we’ll get the fish.”

The initial fish of choice currently grown in the basement system is Tilapia, but the couple plans to ex­pand to additional species such as Perch, White Bass, and others.

“If we can maintain our temperature, we’ll grow Ti­lapia, or we can grow Brown Trout because we can keep our temperature around 60 degrees and the plants really like that colder wa­ter,” he said. “The Tilapia is actually selected to either become food grade or aqua­ponics grade and ours is food grade.”

The farm still needs to receive approval from the Indiana State Board of Health and United Sates Department of Agriculture (USDA) before it can pro­cessing the fish. But be­fore the Carrells reach that point, they will likely sell the fish live.

“Once we become a pro­cessor, we’ll be able to pro­cess fish for restaurants, grocery stores and farmers’ markets,” Steve said. “That entails another building, a clean room and a lot of oth­er things, but we will get there. Because we’re grow­ing vegetables, we have a lower stocking density for the fish.”

The plants are destined for wholesale food markets, farmers’ markets and the yet-to-be-implemented Food Tribe. The Food Tribe is simply a discounted mem­bership providing members with food baskets each week. Baskets will be avail­able in small (two people), medium (three to four peo­ple) and large (six to eight people). The baskets will be distributed at three retail locations, the Greencastle and Owen County farmers’ markets, and at the farm.

“It’ll have this week’s produce with a few substi­tutions and it will be very fresh. The plant will still be live until it’s sold at a farmers’ market,” Steve ex­plained. “As soon as some­one buys it, we’ll cut the roots off and keep the cup with the roots. If they don’t sell, we can bring them back to the system.”

Missy said there is a drastic difference in the taste of produce grown us­ing aquaponics versus pro­duce grown in the ground. She is also actively growing organic, non-GMO micro greens, which are typical­ly used for salad toppings and garnish. She noted the nutritional value of micro broccoli for example, is 40 times that of normal sized broccoli.

“They are two different tastes, it’s very light and flavorful,” she noted.

Steve said he is taking gallons of water at a time from the basement system and introducing it into the larger system to help spread the bacteria to help turn ammonia into nitrogen. The basement operation uses an ebb and flow system, filling up and draining the water repeatedly. The family has harvested an array of pro­duce from lettuce and egg plant to tomatoes, peppers and beans.

“One of the things we found out quick was you can’t plant too many toma­to plants, and it has to be trimmed,” he noted.

An outdoor wood boiler is on the to-be purchased list before winter weather ar­rives to help raise the water temperature and eliminate the need to heat the actu­al building for year-round production. The greenhouse will also be producing year round, with deepwater grow beds receiving sun­light for some plants. The greenhouse will also feature Dutch bucket systems to grow climbing plants such as cucumbers, peppers, to­matoes, and beans. A tower system is also featured in the greenhouse and will be used at farmers’ markets.

“There is a big pipe that flows water over and it trickles down through the ‘tree’ of pipes and the plants will grow inside. We’ll have the whole tower with a small fish tank and circulating pump, so the plants are growing live at the farmers’ market,” Steve explained. “A tower system holds 70 plants and a lot of them will grow strawber­ries. We’ll get that going in the winter. Our goal is to be really pumping and going in January when no one else has fresh, local fruits and vegetables.”

The end goal is to work from their property, provid­ing food and to share the practice of aquaponic farm­ing with the masses.

“June 1st was our origi­nal date, but it’s just over­whelming with the time and money needed to build a system of this size,” Steve admitted. “We’ve got peo­ple coming to work so they can see the system, and can build a small one for themselves. Society will get to this point; they may not grow a whole garden’s worth, but they may have a small system where they grow their own herbs, which is the key to people starting to question and realize the effort it takes to grow some­thing of health conscious­ness. I’m excited for every­body else to eat that way. We want to get to where we can teach classes and start a small system so they can understand where food comes from. The distance from our food supply, for ev­eryone, has gotten very far and that’s something that will change in the future, too.”

For additional informa­tion about the Ponderosa Aqua Farm, visit www.myponics.com. Pondero­sa Aqua Farm can also be found on Facebook. The Carrells can be reached by phone at 317-945-4622.

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