The Country Life: No dirt, no weeds - is aquaponics the future of farming?
No dirt. No tractors. And no weeds!
In a warehouse on the east side of Colorado Springs, Gavin Vitt and his wife, Marshea, have started a business focused on what they see as the future of farming: aquaponics.
So I was intrigued when the first thing I saw when I entered the lobby of Daily Harvest Aquaponics was a tribute to farming's past.
Gavin's great-grandfather immigrated from Czechoslovakia and started a farm in Nebraska that is still in family hands; Marshea's mother grew up on a farm in Georgia, and her family still has that farm. Family photos reflecting those roots are part of Daily Harvest's decor.
"Growing has always kind of been in our blood," Gavin Vitt says.
Now they're trying a different way of growing. A wall inside Daily Harvest bears a definition of aquaponics: "an integrated, soilless system for raising fish and plants in a controlled environment."
There are three key components, Gavin Vitt says. First is the fish, whose waste is largely ammonia. Second is bacteria, which transforms the ammonia into nitrates that provides nutrients for the third component, the plants, which absorb the nutrients and clean the water, which goes back to the fish.
Surprisingly - to me, anyway - this water-based form of growing actually uses 90 percent or so less water than traditional farming. Vitt sees that as aquaponics' big advantage.
Water "is just the new gold," he says, pointing to, for example, the lengthy drought in California.
My introduction to aquaponics came over the summer when I visited Heritage Belle Farms in Calhan, where owner Katie Belle Miller showed me her fledgling aquaponics operation, which at the time consisted of a couple of aquarium tanks filled with tilapia and topped with plants.
Daily Harvest's operation is on a vastly larger scale: The 9,500-square-foot warehouse houses large tanks containing more than 1,200 tilapia, striped bass and koi; the plant growing space, with various varieties of lettuce and herbs, is about 2,700 square feet. Vitt consulted with and is using a system from Nelson + Pade, a Wisconsin company with decades of experience in aquaponics.
The warehouse is owned by Vitt's parents and was part of the family's Lawn Doctor operations; they operated franchises in Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Cañon City before selling them.
I visited Daily Harvest on a recent chilly morning and was buoyed by the sight of all the green, a reminder of summer.
That, of course, is another advantage to aquaponics: While outdoor fields lie barren in the winter, Vitt can grow and harvest year-round; it's about seven weeks from seed to harvest, though he's hoping to shave a week off that.
He sees local restaurants as his primary market for the produce and the fish and is about to push into sell mode; up until now, he's been working to perfect the operation and the produce. (He donated about 500 heads of lettuce to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo this fall that "were not where they needed to be aesthetically." A video on Daily Harvest's Facebook page shows giraffes enjoying the gift.)
Having an indoor operation means Vitt has to take steps to simulate nature: Fans run in the grow room, simulating wind to help strengthen plants' roots, and grow lights replace the sun.
Vitt declined to say how much he's invested in the business but acknowledged it's "a pretty hefty chunk of change."
He's not the first on the aquaponics scene in Colorado Springs, though he believes he's the first with such a large, indoor commercial operation. The nonprofit Abundant Harvest, founded by Charles Hendrix, built a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse last year south of the Springs for its aquaponics operation. There the group raises tilapia and grows a half-dozen varieties of gourmet lettuce, eggplant, cabbage, jalapeños, bell peppers and herbs.
Abundant Harvest gives 50 percent of its produce to food pantries and other organizations and sells the other half, mostly at the greenhouse and at farmers markets.
Operating in a greenhouse, rather than indoors, means Hendrix has to shut down the operation in the winter; it's too cold for the tilapia. But he's not convinced an indoor environment like Daily Harvest's warehouse is the way to go, either. He knows of thriving indoor operations, but questions the expense of having to produce light. And he wonders about the quality of the crops produced with artificial light.
"What is the end result?" Hendrix said. "That is a question I will ask anybody."
Vitt agrees "there is nothing as good nor inexpensive as natural sunlight," but says he's using "the most state-of-the-art substitute" available and is eager to compare his produce with that of traditional growers.
His goal is simple: to have a profitable business and demonstrate that his model works. And his challenge is plain as well, he says: explaining and promoting a farming method that is so new to so many.
"What's wrong with the way we've always done it? Nothing," he says. But with the global population growing and water a scarce resource for many, he sees the benefit of going in a new direction.
"It's the wave of the future," he says.
Bill Radford and his wife live in the country east of Colorado Springs with a menagerie that includes a horse, a mule, two goats, two dogs, two cats, a half-dozen chickens, two rabbits and two parrots. Contact him: Twitter @billradfordiii, gazettebillradford on Facebook.