Sustainable applications for urban agriculture may be one of the most important ways we feed our cities in the not-so-distant future. Venture capital's faith in funding software-linked urban recirculating agriculture projects certainly speaks to the hope that we, as a society, are placing on these technologies. Every month, it seems, a new urban hydro- or aquaponics farm is started with the aim to provide "hyper-local" sustainable greens to their communities. Truly, what could be better than cities feeding themselves eco-friendly fish and plants, and the resulting reduction of both carbon emissions and waste water?
Financially, however, these farms often struggle. Amid the news of aquaponics and hydroponics systems opening and expanding, there are just as many, although quieter, announcements of companies shutting down. In January, Chicago's FarmedHere, an indoor hydroponics company with a 90,000 square foot growing facility, closed its doors. In March, Brooklyn aquaponics project Verticulture Farms announced their dissolution on Facebook.
Many of these operations are indoors and use vertical farming. These indoor, vertical systems can use significant amounts of electricity for lighting of stacked plants and climate control. Once city rent and labor are factored in, produce must be sold at a premium to customers in order to make ends meet. Critics point to the economies of scale, saying that vertical, recirculating urban agriculture will never be able to catch up with conventional, soil-based agriculture.
But vertical, indoor agriculture is only one facet of recirculating urban farming. I work at Oko Farms, an outdoor aquaponics farm in Brooklyn, NY where we grow a myriad of fruiting and leafy plants alongside fish. To contrast from the more high-tech indoor operations, electricity use at Oko Farms is restricted to the two pumps we use to circulate water and oxygen through our 10,000 gallon system (and the power tools we use for building projects). As I see it, one of the biggest obstacles to urban recirculating farming is not just the general economic unfeasibility of a new growing technology, but a problem that small farms all over the country know intimately.
It's no secret that family farms have been on the decline for the past several decades. Small farmers struggle with meeting their bottom line by having to travel miles to the nearest grain mill, or perhaps slaughterhouse, or milk processing plant. Right now, there's similarly little to no infrastructure in place for businesses like Oko Farms. For urban aquaponics initiatives to thrive, an entire industry of related businesses will have to support them.
Here is a list of infrastructure and resources we see as important to sustain the future of urban aquaponics:
Improve Public Education
Farmed fish still has a bad reputation, due largely to the overcrowding practices of conventional aquaculture. Without a public shift in attitude, farmers will not be able to sell their fish at the necessary price point, or at all. Good news: Educational projects in schools such as NY Sunworks, and Will Allen's Growing Power in the Midwest are training youth in these farming methods, which goes towards educating the public.
The Need for Urban Fish Hatcheries
Farmers need to get fish from somewhere, and most don't breed their own fish. While there is no shortage of new urban aquaponics projects, it is much, much harder to find an urban fish hatchery. Farmers in northern areas such as New York City, for instance, must ship tropical fish like tilapia, bass or prawns in from out of state. Or, they must get native fish from a local pond, which can introduce any number of problems when the fish are transferred to a tank. Local fish hatcheries meant for recirculating agriculture on land would go a long way towards sustaining urban fish farms.
More Fish Processing Centers
In New York City, fish from an aquaponics farm must be sold whole on ice, a logistically difficult feat for a small farm without refrigeration. A fish processing operation would do the same thing for urban aquaculture farms that a slaughterhouse does for the meat industry.
Investing in Commercial Kitchens
Commercial kitchens, where value-added products from both fish and plants can be (legally and safely) created, are also important. To prevent food waste and loss of revenue, farmers need a place to preserve their products. Smoking fish and drying herbs and flowers go a long way towards saving otherwise wasted harvests, but these cannot be done on-site legally.
More Fish/Aquatic Veterinarians
Right now, most urban aquaponics farmers need to call or email a long distance veterinarian when their fish are sick. The time it takes to describe the problem to the vet and receive a possible diagnosis which may or may not be correct, can mean the difference between losing an entire stock of fish and making it to harvest time.
The Need for More Equipment Resources
A lot of the equipment for aquaponics and hydroponics are the same - for instance, growing media, solutions for adjusting pH and building materials. Because of hydroponics' connection to the marijuana industry, many hydroponics stores have closed in recent years. Beyond hydroponics, there are very few equipment-related resources for practicing aquaculture in the city. Fish nets, fish feed and fish medicine must all be purchased online, where quality can vary drastically.
While the obstacles facing the burgeoning urban aquaponics industry are many, they are not insurmountable. The resources available online to those interested in going into aquaponics are leagues better than they were even five years ago - check out Better Fish Farming, a project by the Recirculating Farms Coalition to start. In New York City, Oko Farms holds workshops for those who are looking for hands-on urban aquaponics experience, from the home enthusiast to the ambitious farmer.
As more people start their own urban recirculating farms, the infrastructure to support the industry will have to follow. There couldn't be a better time to start an urban fish hatchery or open a commercial kitchen. And if you're more interested in buying produce than growing it, do some research in your area to find your local recirculating farm. It's more likely than you think!