Featured Farmer: Sylvia Bernstein
from The Aquaponic Source
Tell me a little about your aquaponic system. What is its name? Size? What kinds of fish and plants are you raising?
My personal aquaponic systems were actually all moved to our business facility when we moved in July, 2013. There we now have eight large AquaBundance style systems and twelve AquaMini and AquaDesigner countertop systems totaling approximately 1500 gallons of water. They are powered by a wide variety of fish, from betas, guppies and goldfish to tilapia, catfish, bass and bluegill. There is even more variety with the plants we grow, with just about everything you can imagine thriving in our showroom and grow lab. Over the past few years we’ve successfully grown dwarf fruit trees, orchids, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, beans, and a variety of herbs, greens, houseplants, and more.
What initially got you interested in aquaponics?
I first learned about aquaponics when I was the VP of Product Development for AeroGrow International, the makers of the AeroGarden countertop hydroponic system. For years we had been trying to figure out how to offer an organic nutrient for the AeroGarden, but organics is difficult to do in small hydroponic systems because there is typically insufficient microbial activity to mineralize the organic matter and make it bio-available to the plants. The result was generally either poor growth and/or a horrible smell, or when it did work the nutrients were extremely expensive. But in 2008 I read an article about aquaponics and, while I was highly skeptical at first, the thriving basement system set up by a co-worker, followed by my own first system convinced me that aquaponics is a viable, sustainable way to grow organic hydroponic crops.
Do you use worms or compost? What do they do for your system?
We add composting red worms to all of our media beds. Their role is to help process the fish solid waste and plant debris within the grow media.
What do you do with the plants you grow? The fish?
They are a great employee and store visitor benefit!
What is your greatest challenge in your aquaponics endeavors?
Battling some of the misinformation that is out there on the internet. Anyone can call themselves an expert these days, and everyone has an online voice now. I have heard some crazy things about aquaponics that simply aren’t true, like you can’t successfully grow fruiting plants in aquaponics. We do it every day!
What do you enjoy the most about raising fish and food?
I enjoy the solid conviction of knowing exactly how this food was raised and, with regard to the fish, what it was fed and the conditions under which it was raised and harvested. I also enjoy the huge variety of produce that becomes accessible when you grow your own herbs and vegetables from seed. Instead of just a green bean you would get from the grocery store, for example, I now have access to ten varieties of green beans if I grow my own.
Why do you think urban farming and aquaponics are important?
In 2007 we went from living on a primarily rural planet to a primarily urban one, so to me the need for urban farming and aquaponics is a matter of simple math. Global population levels are rising at the same time as a higher percent of that population are living in urban centers. According to the UN FAO, we can only clear about 20% of the remaining land on earth for farming – the rest is unsuitable. This takes us to 48% total of the total earth’s surface available for farming. That is it. We will increasingly have no choice but to turn to urban agriculture to feed ourselves.
Do you think this is a growing movement? Are aquaponics going to play a large role in the future of agriculture?
I do, for two reasons. First, I believe aquaculture will continue to play a significant role in growing our food – it already provides over 50% of the fish consumed globally. And aquaponics takes the costly waste byproduct of aquaculture and transforms it into a beneficial input into another growing system. A cost center becomes a profit center. Second, because aquaponic systems recirculate their system water they use far less water than any other form of agriculture. As population growth and climate change combine to put increasing pressure on our water supply, we will turn to aquaponics more and more as a water-wise way to grow our food.
Do you have any advice for someone just getting started?
Yes! Seek out reputable sources of educational material rather than just doing an internet search and reading whatever free material comes up first in the search engines. The small amount that you pay for a high quality book, DVD or online course will be made up for many times in avoided costly mistakes down the road.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Aquaponics can be done on a wide range of scales – from small desktop systems to huge commercial farms. I hope that everyone reading this is compelled to start an aquaponic system on some level that interests them. I think you will find creating your own aquaponic ecosystem is both fascinating and rewarding. Give it a try!