This article was written by guest-author Pierre Beauchamp, executive member of Quantum Growth Institute, which builds greenhouses and aquaponic systems for closed-loop, year-round food production in educational and residential settings.
Greenhouses and aquaponics: the future of closed-loop, year-round food production.
For the last 10 years, I have been experimenting in the field of aquaponics and greenhouse food production, gaining experience as an educator and agricultural entrepreneur. My projects really got off the ground back in junior year of high school, when my childhood friend Hayden Tucker and I crowdfunded $10,000 to custom build a 1,000 gallon off-grid aquaponic system on our high school campus.
Soon after the project was completed, I was nominated to give a keynote presentation on closed-loop food production at the first International Aquaponics Conference hosted by the University of Wisconsin.
The aquaponic system has gone on to produce fresh food for the Del Oro High School cafeteria and serve as a STEM research center for students. Today, it produces food year-round and acts as an educational model available to homeschool, private and public school students. The beauty of the project is that it empowers students to solve present and future food related challenges.
The 1,000-gallon set up consists of a four-stage gravity fed aquaponic system with three 1 x 4 x 8-foot clay pellet media beds, three deep water culture floating raft beds with the same dimensions, six 50-gallon sump tanks, and one 300-gallon fish tank as well as one water and one air pump. Electricity for the off-grid system comes from a 4,000 Watt solar array on the school farm, and water is piped from a 5,000-gallon rainwater catchment system adjacent to the greenhouse.
When the project was first gaining traction, it seemed like every week I was presenting about it to some local organization: first the Lions Club, then Town Hall, the Rotary, the School Board, Placer County, local banks, nonprofits, you name it. I was there, pitching the project with nothing to lose. It was game on! With little more than ambition, a decent proposal, and some field experience, my friend Hayden Tucker and I raised enough money to keep momentum going around the project. That summer, after school recessed, Hayden and I spent 6 nights a week in the campus greenhouse until we filled the system with water, turned on the pump, and brought the project to fruition.
We not only created local year-round, closed-loop food production, we produced answers to age-old questions.
What makes a system closed-loop? How can it produce food year-round? How can it be used as an educational model? What are some things to think about when creating your own closed loop system, whether in aquaponics, a greenhouse or outside?
For a system of this nature to be “closed loop” or else achieve sustainability, it must close four essential loops. Listed in order of most to least difficult to actualize, they are: financial, material, utility, and labor.
Closing the Financial Loop:
A few questions ought to be asked and hopefully answered when attempting to close this loop: What are the day-to-day expenses involved with running your operation, and what can you produce to generate the highest revenue per square foot of space that you have available? Make sure you can successfully grow these things, too, and they are not too demanding in terms of resources, utility, or labor, as that would increase your cost of goods sold and impact your ability to close the loop.
Things I’ve tried in the past that may help you:
- Seek a semi-perpetual source of independent revenue. This could come in the form of donations, grants, fundraising efforts, etc… Regardless, a strong proposal, budget, and vision will speak volumes to investors/donors (especially the budget part). Have a vision and develop a detailed flowchart on how you and your team will get there. Include a timeline, a budget, your short and long term goal(s), your inspiration for setting this goal, and the impact it will have on the community. This is what usually intrigues others to support your cause, so have a strong proposal. Include pictures, and videos if you have them.
- Sell the things you produce or provide a service such as greenhouse tours, year round gardening classes, consulting, community garden memberships or CSAs. Think outside the box! I have sold red worms, fish, all sorts of produce, fish emulsions (manure), greenhouse tours, classes and consulted.
Closing the Material Loop:
Here is where it gets tricky, but fun! You must get creative here. Try new things constantly, because no one (as far as I know) has closed this loop yet. Things to think about: where do your inputs come from? Are they produced/available locally? Can they be reclaimed from somewhere? Can they be obtained in times of crisis, like now during COVID-19 for example? If not, how much can you afford to stock pile and what’s the shelf life? Is it possible to start producing any of these things yourself instead of sourcing them?
Things I have done that help me close this loop:
- Let one or two of your best looking plants go to seed. This could be heart breaking at first, I know, but bear with me. This is genetic selection (survival of the fittest); it works in nature, so try it out in your greenhouse. These plants overtime will theoretically adapt to your specific situation (i.e. microclimate, soil, gardening techniques, pests, etc.). I raise fish in my greenhouse aquaponic system and many years back I experimented with producing my own fish food.
About four years ago, I introduced red worms into the media beds, and today, my beds are absolutely teaming with them. So much so, that when they hatch — which they do by the millions — they essentially become water soluble and get swept up by the water’s current and carried to the fish tanks, where 30 full grown hungry catfish eagerly await.
- This alone, I’ve noticed, has reduced by fish food input by over 60%. In addition, since there is an abundance of algae growth in the tanks, I introduced aquatic snails a few years ago and today, the system is teaming with these organisms, too. They not only scour the troughs of algae that would otherwise clog the plumbing, but can be scooped out by the handful and fed directly to the fish! These two techniques dropped my fish food input down by 80% what it was five years ago. It’s things like this that can make or break the loop on your system, so don’t take anything for granted and try new things every step of the way. Your greenhouse will survive if you mess up, so just go for it.
Closing the Utility Loop:
Ten years ago, this loop would have been one of the more difficult ones for certain. However, its easier now.
With the recent and rapid advances in technology, you can easily develop a photovoltaic and/or battery supplemented power grid that suits your needs.
Additionally, a water catchment system on your greenhouse or a nearby building can massively reduce or even eliminate your need for a water supply, depending on the efficiency of your greenhouse’s water usage. Even still, greenhouses themselves require some energy for heating and cooling, even though ventilation systems can be designed inexpensively. In our climate zone in Northern, CA, it’s essential to have a greenhouse to produce food year-round.
Closing the Labor Loop:
Working with a school, a community or a non-profit organization in which volunteers are readily available is a fantastic way to curb your labor costs. Get in touch with a non-profit and partner with them. They have the ability to donate free labor from community service workers.
Start a club or small group in which locals, students, family and friends can come and learn from your system as well as reap the benefits of their labor, should you provide them with produce and/or education.
If your goal is to implement some sort of agricultural system for education in a school setting, whether it be for first graders or college students, on a campus or at home, convey a sound vision and invite people to participate in it.
At the end of the day, I am still experimenting and learning from this system. I hope my story inspires you to explore closed-loop food production and leverage local resources to grow food sustainably all year round.