A Collaboration Between The GrowHaus and Colorado Aquaponics

When we entered the GrowHaus on an icy overcast day in January of 2010, it was hard to imagine how the space was going to someday grow food for a food desert neighborhood. We put our newborn twins in a grocery cart left in the frozen dirt parking lot, and walked into the dingy old abandoned building with our 3 year old daughter grasping our hand. Just a week before, JD had been asked to help construct an aquaponics system for the GrowHaus, a future urban farm and marketplace in a Northwest Denver neighborhood. We were beyond thrilled and the journey over the years has taken us through some truly inspiring, challenging, and incredibly fulfilling work.

When JD lost his job during the economic downturn, we were compelled to think differently about his career. After 15 years in corporate America, he was ready for a change. Our goals were pretty simple yet powerful: feed our family, give back to the community and create a sustainable business. While researching backyard fish farming to grow more of our own food, we stumbled across a few aquaponics websites, including a Denver Post article highlighting the GrowHaus. We were instantly intrigued by the concept of bio-integrating growing fish and plants together. In Colorado, we have very heavy clay or rocky soils, and a difficult combination of a hot dry climate, draught, nasty summer hailstorms and cold winters. Aquaponics was the answer to fix all that. The concept of no weeding or tilling was immediately alluring. To grow more food with less water while providing constant nutrients and producing zero waste was even more exciting. However, the possibility of raising fresh fish as a protein source in addition to the healthy produce year-round compelled us to start growing this way at home. We felt so very fortunate that our family had access to nutritious food, but realized that not everyone has that same opportunity. Seeing the kid’s excitement for the fish and growing plants, we started setting up systems at area schools. We expanded to operating a 3,000sf deep water culture aquaponics farm which provided a ton of experience as well as great ideas for some system design improvements. We were running one farm while constructing the new one, which was exciting but very demanding. Once we broke down the old farm and moved all of the fish over to the GrowHaus, we were on our way to fulfilling our collective goals and visions.

Growing Food in a Food Desert

The Elyria-Swansea and Globeville neighborhoods where the GrowHaus is located is considered one of the most polluted zip codes in Colorado due to its proximity to heavy industrial manufacturing, an oil refinery, rail yards and a major highway. The community is also designated as a food desert based on characteristics of low income, race/ethnicity, long distance to a grocery store, lack of access to fresh affordable food, and dependence on public transportation. In place of grocery stores, the residences have come to rely on fast food, gas stations, convenience stores and food banks for the majority of their food staples. Due to these factors, many people within food deserts have significant challenges in food security and access resulting in dramatic increases in related health issues.

We have had the amazing opportunity to work with GrowHaus staff, volunteers, students, interns and community members. Along with a permaculture designed area called Growasis and a 5,000 sf hydroponics facility, several aquaponics projects have been constructed to demonstrate different system designs and methods. Much of the GrowHaus functions as a living classroom designed to create awareness around food, nutrition and health and to teach people how to take charge of food production for themselves and others.

The Community-Scale Aquaponics System, Flourish Farm 2

In the fall of 2012, a 3,250 sq ft greenhouse bay at the GrowHaus was renovated with a grant from the Colorado Health Foundation. We boot-strapped our farm expenses and launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to crowd source the majority of funding to build the community system. The food grown here travels less than 5 miles to the customer and all of the food is harvested within a few hours of being eaten. In addition, this system provides a great opportunity to gather a tremendous amount of information in our effort to develop economic, social and environmentally sustainable food production systems. This system includes:

  • 300 sq. ft. of media beds that grow squash, zucchini, cucumbers, several varieties of tomatoes and peppers, eggplant, broccoli, brussel sprouts, beans, and strawberries, all companion planted with nasturtiums, cilantro and marigolds to help with pest control. New additions to the media beds in grow out pots include a Meyer lemon, red bananas, kumquats and a fig tree with over a hundred year lineage.
  • 1,200 sq ft of deep water culture raft beds (DWC) which every week produce roughly 800-1000 heads of lettuce, kale, tatsoi, chard, mizuna, mint and basil and a wide variety of other salad and cooking greens. We have tested over 65 different varieties to find the ones that produce the best in the DWC, can be grown year-round in a greenhouse, are heat tolerant, fairly pest resistant and of course taste great. The DWC system alone will produce over 20,000lbs of lettuce annually. This same quantity of lettuce produced commercially emits roughly 7,760lbs of CO2e in emissions tied to production, transportation, and waste. With local aquaponics and minimal food miles to our customers, emissions and the overall carbon footprint are dramatically reduced.
  • Vertical towers grow the majority of the culinary herbs in the system– thyme, basil, dill, cilantro, parsley, sage, stevia, rosemary, mint, and lots of the standard greens. We love how customers react when they see towers hanging at the farmer’s markets and get to harvest their own fresh herbs.
  • Self watering nursery beds grow all the seedlings, microgreen flats and wheatgrass. Chefs love the micros for their intense flavor and lovely visual appeal, while we all enjoy the great nutrient density these little powerhouse plants contain.
  • Wicking beds are coming on-line shortly to allow for root crops to be produced. NFT troughs are also integrated into the system to demonstrate growing using this method. A multi-tier fodder system will be built soon to demonstrate growing plants for animals such as wheat, alfalfa and barley grass.
  • An air powered compost tea brewer allows us to remove solids from the clarifier and remix them into an outstanding fertilizer solution for use in soil based gardens, lawns, compost and even as a foliar spray

Fish and bacteria make up the rest of the system. For all the great things to say about the plants, it wouldn’t be possible without the other two important components of aquaponics. This system is home to Blue Nile, Mozambique and Rocky Mountain White Tilapia. There is an ongoing debate over which variety of fish tastes the best. The lower temperature hardy whites have a bright pearlescent skin and the color goes through the tender flesh. Some people find this attractive while others are looking for the more common fish-like coloration. They all taste good to us though. A large population of Koi also live with the tilapia in the system. The koi are beautiful to look at, fetch a nice price tag for pond enthusiasts, and do a good job cleaning up after the tilapia. Water quality improved when we co-habitated both species in the same tank. Our plans are to bring in rainbow trout this fall when the temperatures drop down in the greenhouse.

We are also in the process of integrating a solar thermal system which will be used to heat the water, greatly reducing if not eliminating the need for consuming finite natural resources. The system utilizes gravity for water flow wherever possible, and the pumps and aerators consume minimal energy. Sustainable and intensive food production can be achieved with a thoughtfully designed aquaponics system using integrated renewable energy systems coupled with energy efficient buildings.

Health and Social Aspects of Community-Based Aquaponics

While we could tinker all day with engineering new design ideas, building system components and the work of farming, there are so many other compelling reasons to keep feeding the fish.

Food Justice – Access to healthy food is a basic inalienable right for every human being. The GrowHaus has fulfilled this mission by creating a farm fresh food basket program called Mercado de al Lado. The weekly baskets are available at a price point comparable to Walmart, but filled with better than Wholefoods quality fresh fruits and vegetables either grown on-site or from local farmers whenever possible. The baskets can be purchased using SNAP, pay what you can, donor contribution or volunteer options.

Healthier Lifestyles – While fresh food access is the first step, it takes time for people to change life-long eating habits. To help this transition the GrowHaus offers cooking classes, nutrition awareness campaigns, music, art and food connection, culturally appropriate recipes, exercise programs, and community events focused around food. People, and especially kids, who get the opportunity to grow their own food and know where it comes from, are more likely to make better food choices. At a recent event, Kendra Sandoval, Director of Community Outreach in Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s office stated, “When you have access to healthy, fresh foods, you see a decrease in the cancer rates, obesity rates and diabetes rates. And, when we are looking at fresh fish and greens as a way of a diet, we are looking at not only a change in someone’s body, but a cultural shift that is about to happen.”

Food Security – While the residents in a food desert are constantly challenged with food security due to access and income issues, everyone should really consider food security as a top priority. It is far too easy to take for granted that grocery stores will always have stocked shelves and that long haul transportation will deliver out-of-season foods year-round from thousands of miles away. Community based aquaponics can be one piece in solving food security locally and around the world.

Healthier Food – It is well documented that soil has lost the majority of its fertility and agriculture is heavily dependent upon petro-chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to produce food. While it is easy to feel frustrated about a broken agriculture system, we should instead seek opportunities for improvement. When produce travels long distances, is handled multiple times and stored in refrigerated warehouses, it loses its nutritional qualities through a process called senescence. Food harvested and eaten locally has significantly greater nutritional value, and simply tastes better.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change things, create a model that makes the existing model obsolete” Buckminster Fuller

Economic Impact – Colorado is an agriculture state, with food purchases topping $12 billion annually, yet 97% of the food consumed is produced out of state, (2012  Transition Colorado Food Localization Study). While the GrowHaus and similar community-scale farm ventures will not significantly change these numbers, it acts as a model to demonstrate the value of a local food shift. Green jobs created in a community and the money spent in a community, stays within that community and improves the direct local economic viability multiple times over.

“Why outsource our food, when we can grow it close to home?”

Educational Opportunities – JD and I both value learning, researching and collaborating. We take every opportunity we can to learn from the pioneers in aquaculture, aquaponics, controlled environment agriculture, food safety, wastewater treatment, renewable energy and the like. Since we both have background experience in education and curriculum development, we are passionate about helping others learn about aquaponics.. We have had the pleasure of training thousands of people from around the world and are working on some new materials and video content to extend that reach even more. Connecting with K-12 schools as well as partnerships with colleges and universities are shaping a new generation of young innovative farmers. Being a farmer may be one of the most important jobs that helps to shape and secure the future of our planet and people.

“The more you know, the more you grow.”

The concept of a community-based farm and marketplace like the GrowHaus is becoming increasing popular for so many reasons. Aquaponics is but one element of a massive cultural shift that brings nutritious food closer to the people, and re-creates culture around food. As Coby Gould, the Executive Director of the GrowHaus pointed out, the root of the word agriculture is culture. It is time to reconnect these concepts. These are just a few of the reasons why we feel that growing food, growing minds and growing community is essential and why we are blessed to do such a fulfilling job every single day.

JD and Tawnya Sawyer started Colorado Aquaponics to help further aquaponics not only for home-hobbyists, but to create and demonstrate that aquaponics can be environmentally, socially and financially sustainable. We look forward to contributing to both local and global food solutions.