A Fishy Farming System Could Bring Organic Food to the Masses

Farmers using greenhouses and aquaponics promise to make sustainable, local produce cheaper and more accessible in urban places.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Feb 25, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Like so many urban agriculture stories, this one starts in a backyard with chickens, bees, and best friends. With crowdfunding, heavyweight investors, and now the $10,000 grand prize at The Food Lab of University of Texas’ Food Challenge Prize, Ten Acre Organics’ mission to build what it says will be the most sustainable, productive, and replicable growing model for local and organic foods has heated up faster than a climate change debate.

What started three years ago as a home garden in East Austin that produced just about everything—including vegetables, fish, and honey—has been streamlined into a concept founders Lloyd Minick and Michael Hanan believe is revolutionary: 10 acres of aquaponics tanks under greenhouse cover that could produce 5 million pounds of organic food a year. This isn’t just a vision for Texas. Minick and Hanan hope their design will be replicated on the borders of big cities across the country. In urban America, where large portions of cities struggle with food insecurity, Ten Acre Organics could make vegetables cheaper and more accessible for everyone.

The Ten Organics Team (Photo courtesy Ten Organics)

“People are excited about our idea because relative to a lot of the local and organic movement, we’re trying to do something that integrates technology and doing things on a scale and sophistication that hasn’t really been seen before,” said Minick.

True, this is no idyllic vision of empty lots overrun with garden beds, or rooftops piled with dirt for farming. Ten Acre Organics is using aquaponics, the synthesis of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants in water) in one circular ecosystem. Fish waste becomes food for the plants, which then naturally purify the water. The farms would combine existing greenhouse and hydroponics technologies to automate much of the labor, climate control, and water monitoring required from an aquaponics system, reducing both costs and inputs. At the end of the day, that means cheaper organic greens for Texans and, eventually, the rest of us.

There’s an intermediary step between growing a backyard business and running a nearly 500,000-square-foot farm. With the help of investor money and USDA farm loans, Ten Acre Organics is first moving to a commercial-scale plot of land a little over a quarter of an acre near Austin city limits. It already has a commitment from one of the largest grocery store chains in Texas to purchase all the produce grown at that yet-to-be-built facility.

“They’re really excited and want to help us grow to our full-scale 10-acre farm as quickly as possible,” Minick said.

Aquaponics is a relatively new industry with a rather sharp scientific learning curve and, when attempted at a large scale, steep start-up costs. This could account in part for why, despite a 30-year history, we still don’t hear more about it. But it has been gaining traction in recent years, and the system powers some of the most successful urban farms. Vertical aquaponics producer FarmedHere operates out of a 90,000-square-foot warehouse in Chicago, and its harvest is sold at Whole Foods. In St. Paul, Minnesota, where the former Hamm’s Brewery sat empty, Urban Organics not only grows three kinds of kale, but has set out to fix a food system by revitalizing a neighborhood and creating new jobs. Both farms tout the appeal of freshly picked lettuce that travels city blocks rather than long-haul cross-country routes from California. (Also note that neither is based in what might be called a temperate climate.)

That’s not to say growing vegetables in fish ponds is a panacea. The system has its critics, and the questions raised are legitimate. Can aquaponics work anywhere? Do the greenhouses make farms too energy-intensive? The answers are mixed, but the appeal is still huge. Depending on whom you’re talking to, aquaponics uses between 80 percent and 95 percent less water than conventional field growth. Ten Acre Organics says an aquaponics system can produce 10 to 20 times as much produce in the same amount of space, making it ideal for urban agriculture.

“It’s hard for people not to like the idea of creating more sustainable food systems,” Minick said. “People get excited about technology being integrated with sustainable food production.”

At its most basic, aquaponics is relatively low-tech but requires a wealth of specialized knowledge—you’re maintaining a rich ecosystem, after all—and that can be a barrier for many, Minick pointed out. Meg Stout, chairman of the Aquaponics Association, agreed. “The tech hasn’t matured to the point where you have somebody going to Walmart or Home Depot or Lowe’s with a little kit that will work every single time,” she said.

In creating a design that can be replicated anywhere and operate consistently and successfully, Ten Acre Organics could be the ones who clear the hurdle to land among the mainstream. Its grocery store partnership, for one, is about affordability as much as it is about scale. Automation of many of the labor processes—including seeding, planting, transplanting, and harvesting—will greatly reduce labor costs. Acres-huge greenhouses in the U.S. have used this kind of automation to grow massive quantities of vegetables for wholesale distribution but only for conventionally raised crops, Minick explained.

“We’re wanting to take similar economies of scale and technological sophistication but with a local farm model and doing it organic,” Minick said. “That kind of automation and lowering of labor costs is going to be one of the ways in which we’re able to accomplish our mission of making local and organic foods more affordable and accessible for more people, using technology to do that.”

It’ll be like a “robotic food factory,” Minick noted, but one with a bleeding-heart mission beating at its core.