You could say they’re breaking new ground – but it doesn’t require much ground.
You could call it a back-to-the-earth movement – but there’s almost no “earth” involved.
It’s aquaponics – a unique way to grow organic vegetables and raise fish at the same time – and a little farm east of Boyd may be the epicenter of the movement.
The newly-formed North Texas Aquaponics Association held a ribbon cutting and open house Friday, with about 20 people in attendance. Frank Zarauskas’ farm – a mobile home with a couple of greenhouses out front and a dizzying array of tanks, filters, wires and pipes – hosted the event, which included a catered meal and tours of the facilities.
It’s a hotbed of research and development for a movement that is not new, but is looking to come into the public view.
Aquaponics combines aquaculture – raising fish – and hydroponics, growing plants in water rather than soil. Together, the two operations support each other as the waste that accumulates in the water is circulated through the plant bed and used by the plants.
What’s toxic to the fish is fertilizer to the plants. And after the plants get through with the water, it’s clean and fresh for the fish.
It’s a symbiosis that yields delicious, organic vegetables and big, healthy, tasty fish – but it takes some knowledge to manage the system and keep everything healthy. That’s where Frank, and the NTAA, come in.
“The plants clean up the water and keep the fish going,” Frank said on the tour. “There’s a little bit of algae in there, but the fish take care of it, and the plants take care of the fish. It can be done if you have enough plants in your home system.”
Frank has several different systems in his greenhouse. One that he calls his “little backyard system” features a 250-gallon tank with about 20 to 30 tilapia.
“All the fish poop and any excess food I give them goes up through the pump and filters out in this bed,” he says. “The bed cleans the water and aerates it, and it goes back to the fish as clean water.”
The garden growing right above the tank bursts with pepper and tomato plants, Swiss chard and kale. The vegetables, and eventually the fish, can be certified as organic.
Doug Morrison, director of business development for the fledgling association, said the plan is to let Frank’s place be “the hub” for aquaponics in this part of Texas. He said the principles are the same as any other type of agricultural production.
“I work with small farmers,” he said. “They all have the same kind of process, whether it’s fish, plants, pork or beef. Get the little ones born, get them away from mom, get them big enough that you can transport them to the next stage. Grow them up and finish them off.”
He said aquaculture, or fish-farming, has been around for thousands of years.
“There’s a bit of aquaculture here in Texas, a lot of it in Louisiana,” he said. “I think that for Texas, just as an agricultural business, these kinds of operations make a lot of sense.”
One reason, Morrison said, is that the growing can be done in a covered environment, safe from the harsh elements, year-round.
A planned addition at Frank’s place would double the greenhouse space and allow the operation to go commercial, but it will probably cost a half-million dollars.
“You could grow fish – probably tilapia – and produce, probably lettuce,” he said. “You can grow lettuce in 30 days, so you get a lot of cycles out of it, and it’s pretty risk-free. A lot of people use lettuce. If you combine the tilapia and high-volume lettuce production, you’ve got something.”
INVOLVED IN EDUCATION
Fort Worth’s Dunbar Middle School has been bringing students out to Frank’s place for after-school science enrichment for three years. The school has a working aquaponics operation, and Veronica Williams, who directs the after-school program, is a big Frank fan.
“I was looking for a really neat, very unique science program for our after-school students,” she said. “I wanted something nobody else was doing, and I was told to go check out this guy named Frank at Boyd.”
She came out, got a full tour, then went back and talked to her principal and other administrators. She brought them out for a tour, and the school’s aquaponics program was born.
“Our kids just love coming out here,” she said. “It’s the highlight of their year.”
They plan to come this Saturday and get involved in everything from cloning tomatoes to planting bibb lettuce, Swiss chard, mint, spinach, sprouts – whatever Frank has lined out for them to do.
“What they’re really learning is how to be self-sufficient,” she said. “It’s more than just a science education, it’s an education in life.”
Morrison said he sees abundant space in Fort Worth where vacant land and abandoned industrial buildings could become aquaponic sites – close to the market.
“We can sell into the Kroger chain, Whole Foods Markets, because this is organic,” he said.
Some members of the group are going to College Station to visit with the Texas Agrilife Extension Service folks about starting a study. Morrison thinks one or more Wise County communities could be perfect proving grounds for learning how to market and multiply aquaponic production.
Williams said aquaponics can “revolutionize our country.”
“We’re at a point now in our world where it is more cost-effective for us to teach our kids to be self-sufficient,” she said. “We have kids going back home and starting gardens, thanks to the partnership we have built here. We look forward to more in the future.”
Shawn Mitchell, executive director for the new association, summed it up.
“The purpose of the North Texas Aquaponics Association is to gather individuals together to learn the aquaponic way of life,” she said. “The association will promote and market the products of aquaponic farmers, provide education and training and support research on the best aquaponic practices.
“Get the word out to everybody you know, everywhere,” she said. “We want to launch NTAA right out into the world.”