The balancing act of aquaponics farming

October 26th, 2017

By Barb Sieminski | The News-Sentinel

Little did Stefanie Woodring and Trevor Dawson realize those many years ago when as children they spent carefree hours fishing in Hoosier waters that this beloved pastime in the outdoors would later become intertwined with their life’s work.

“I think early experiences out in nature can really help one gain an appreciation for natural cycles and interconnectedness of all parts of an ecosystem,” observed Woodring, senior aquaponics associate of daily operations with Get Fresh Farms in Fort Wayne.

“In the field of aquaponics, understanding complex systems with many interconnected parts is extremely important.”

The essence of Get Fresh Farms is, according to GFF Project Manager and Fort Wayne Metals, Materials Testing Laboratory Supervisor, Advanced Materials Development, Trevor Dawson, “a locally-minded aquaponics operation focused on sustainable agriculture that provides fresh produce and fish year-round. Being committed to innovation and research is what drives GFF to enrich our community and its food self-sufficiency.”

GFF supplies Nile tilapias and fresh produce to Tolon’s Farm-to-Table Restaurant and also to Three Rivers Natural Grocery Food Co-op & Deli; these are just two of the local establishments GFF is proud to count as among its biggest customers and supporters.

“Our company is permitted to sell whole fish with no processing of any sort, meaning we can’t sell filleted fish,” said Woodring. “The fish leave our facility alive – whole and on ice. For more information about purchasing fish from our farm, please email sales@getfreshfarms.com.

“Our customers prefer the tilapia to be more than 2 lbs. when we sell them. Our tilapia can grow larger than that if there isn’t an immediate need for fish. Our fish vary in size depending on which generation they are from. As larger, more mature fish are sold younger fingerlings are added to the system.”

According to Dawson, balance is key, and this is attained by “harvesting mature fish and adding in young fingerlings at a rate that maintains optimal water quality and plant growth.”

Scott Kammerer, executive chef and culinary director with Fort Wayne Tin Caps Baseball/Parkview Field, could not be happier partnering with Dawson and Woodring.

“It is hard to match the freshness and the intense flavors from Get Fresh Farms tomatoes and their greens,” said Kammerer.

“And it is difficult to source fresh flavorful lettuce in the early to mid-fall due to the rust and wilt issues in the late crop harvest of the southwest. Stefanie and I have been talking over the past many months about filling that void with their produce. She began experimenting with different greens and growing techniques to help us continue to serve great quality lettuce to our customers.”

“They are great folks and a great organization!”

Get Fresh Farms was the brainchild of Scott and Melissa Glaze, champions of downtown development and founders/owners of J K O’Donnell’s Irish Pub, whose initial interest was in supplying the pub with fresh fish and produce. GFF is the daughter company of Fort Wayne Metals (www.fwmetals.com/), a much larger company whose employees are also customers of GFF who enjoy the luxury of having fresh fish and produce available year round.

Concept and planning endeavors were spearheaded by a team of Fort Wayne Metals employees. The system was designed and built by Pranger Aquaculture and Mechanical Systems; in 2011 the steel structure was built to house fish production and a greenhouse was built for plants. In 2012, water was added to the system for the first time.

The building houses 22,000 gallons of re-circulating water, and the eight production tanks each contain up to 250 lbs. of fish. Without getting too technical, suffice it to say that aquaponics (a blend of hydroponics and aquaculture and beneficial bacteria) depends on a nitrification process to get the system going in that room. Sustainability is further enhanced by a closed loop system (one that does not exchange matter with the outside world).

“People are very interested in our fish, but they are really just one part of the interrelated whole,”said Dawson.

“An aquaponics system is a balancing act, dependent on a healthy population of bacteria to convert the fish waste into a form that the plants can uptake. The plants in our greenhouse play an equally critical role, cleaning and filtering the water before it re-circulates back to the fish tanks.”

The greenhouse has three unique growing systems: raft beds, media beds and the wicking beds. Crop rotation is used and pest management is based on no synthetic pesticides being used, said Dawson, a Purdue University graduate.

“The entire system is connected so compounds sprayed in the greenhouse will end up affecting the fish, too. Bacterial and fungal-based pesticides can be utilized to control various pests like aphids, thrips, white flies and caterpillars.”

Various species of beneficial insects are released in the greenhouse as a means of controlling pests, such as the green lacewing and the ladybug. In addition to beneficial insects being released, beneficial plant species are planted throughout the greenhouse to attract and house beneficial insects, including dill, borage, bush bean, alyssum, and dwarf calendula.

To maximize greenhouse production and efficiency, an automated system controlling light, temperature and ventilation is used by Wadsworth Controls, and the radiant floor heat system primarily maintains the greenhouse temperature. In the winter, the water temperature is largely maintained by controlling the ambient air temperature in the fish room structure by heating it with a standard furnace.

In this era of natural disasters, how is GFF set up for recovery?

“We have experienced minor damage to our greenhouse in the past during thunderstorms with straight-line winds,” said Woodring. “High winds are definitely a concern and can be very damaging for a light-weight structure like our greenhouse. Fortunately, our facility has a great deal of redundancy and back-up systems built-in to protect us in case of a power loss or other sudden emergency.”

Get Fresh Farms employs four additional staff members, including Augusta “Aggie” Pryor, Kylie Bradfield, Eli Shipley and Marvin Sorg.

The best part of their job, both Dawson and Woodring agree, is, “to be able to work hard every day to carry out the mission that Scott and Melissa Glaze originally set forth when they created Get Fresh and built our facility on the Fort Wayne Metals campus,” said Woodring.

“Their ongoing commitment to the health and development of our community is inspiring and truly what makes our jobs rewarding. True to their vision we are able to supply the Fort Wayne community with healthy, local and affordably-priced produce and fish year-round. And because we utilize an Aquaponics system, we are able to do this with sustainability in mind. Furthermore, we have a focus on innovation just like the rest of the Fort Wayne Metals company.

“We are given the tools and resources we need to do some really unique work and share our growing knowledge of aquaponics with the community.”

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