Avant Garden: Leaves and Fishes

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A year-round urban farm merges social justice and environmentalism in a single business model

By Carolyn White
Photo by Nolan Calisch

ann-forsthoefelAh, the urban gardener’s spring harvest: Heart-shaped strawberries. Dahlia-like heads of lettuce. Large- mouth bass. Such is the odd world of aquaponics.

On the north and east sides of Ann Forsthoefel’s handsome Overlook Neighborhood craftsman, meticulously planted raised beds spill over with edibles—this is clearly not the work of a greenhorn. But the real treat comes in the form of her handcrafted backyard aquaponics rig—a two-tank system that cultivates food and fish symbiotically.

Forsthoefel is a rabid foodie and locavore: she ran a 150-seat gourmet restaurant, taught agroecology at Boulder, Colorado’s Naropa University, and helped develop an “indoor smart garden” for homes—a portable hydroponics system that can grow vegetables, herbs, tomatoes, and flowers year-round. Locally, she’s worked at the Oregon Food Bank and the Portland Farmers’ Market, where she was executive director.

Always looking to take it to the next level, three years ago she decided to give aquaponics a shot. Aquaponics is a mashup of hydroponics, a water-based method of growing plants, and aquaculture, the farming of aquatic organisms. You get the best of both worlds in an aquaponics system: plants are fertilized by nutrient-dense fish waste, and the plants purify the
aquatic environment for the fish. It sounds intimidating, but Forsthoefel assures that it’s doable: “Where do you want to do it? In a basement? You can do it. And there’s minimal cost up front.”

Forsthoefel’s system is situated on a small concrete patio, just outside her kitchen’s sliding glass doors. Her tanks sit side by side—one accommodates roughly 50 fish and is perpetually covered (fish don’t like light), and another cradles a floating, rock-filled bed, plants nestled into cups with roots dangling below in the water. It’s a closed-loop system, meaning that the water is constantly being recycled. Gravity moves the water from the fish tank down to the garden bed a foot below, while a small pump returns the plant-filtered water back to the fish tank.

“It’s the optimal growth environment—plants don’t have to fight for nutrients. It’s great for tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, leafy greens, and herbs.”

aquaponicsForsthoefel rattles off a series of impressive statistics: Trials have affirmed that veggie flavor is identical to their earth-grown counterparts; plant growth is three times faster; and yields are four times higher. She enthusiastically points to a photo of a beastly tomato plant towering above her roof. “I stopped counting at 300 tomatoes.” Growing vertically, she explains, is where things can really get crazy. She has such an abundance of vegetables that she sells a weekly harvest to a downtown Portland employment agency, where 37 employees have the opportunity to participate in a CSA-style buyer’s club.

But raising fish is a fickle business. She lost an entire school when a neighbor mistakenly fed them chicken feed over the Thanksgiving holiday. Such is life when raising a delicate organism. Her favorite fish to eat is large-mouth bass—she buys fry in Salem and they’re plate ready after 18 months.

She’s convinced that home aquaponics systems are adaptable, scalable, mobile, and can work within a range of budgets. They can be as large or as small as you like, from a pair of pet store-size fish tanks to thousand-gallon behemoths.

Constantly looking ahead, Forsthoefel believes that aquaponics can and should play a greater role in our global food system. “We live in the garden of Eden. But you look at most of the world—it doesn’t have the arable land that we have in the U.S. Aquaponics is an empowerment tool. All you need are tanks, and they use 75 percent less water than a comparable vegetable garden in the ground. It just makes sense.”

Want to give it a try? Forsthoefel recommends her good friend Sylvia Bernstein’s book Aquaponic Gardening: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Vegetables and Fish Together and encourages joining The Aquaponic Source, a collaborative online learning community.

She’s also working to identify a local nonprofit that’s interested in facilitating neighborhood-level demonstration centers where people can experientially learn about the process. “It’s a great learning tool for kids. When you add an animal aspect to anything, they get so excited. They’re more intrigued about where their food comes from.”

In the meantime, Forsthoefel continues to take her food activism to the streets—she’s the Outreach and Operations Director for the James Beard Public Market, a large indoor- outdoor food market projected to break ground underneath the Morrison Bridge in 2016. “It’s a big project and all the forces have to align for financing through public funding and private donations. But it’s got great momentum right now.”
Carolyn White can’t stop fantasizing about growing fish and tomatoes in perfect harmony.
READ: More stories from the Spring 2015 issue

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