Aquaponics offers a sustainable, water-saving model that has caught the eye of NASA.
Aquaponics is an ancient crop growing technique that is still in use today to grow cannabis and various other crops. Commercial aquaponics offers a host of benefits to the consumer and the environment. So, how does this unusual farming method work?
It’s a sustainable method for growing plants that marries hydroponics with aquaculture (raising aquatic life in tanks) inside a closed-loop environment. By forming a symbiotic relationship between plants and fish, an aquaponics system creates a balanced mini ecosystem in which to grow in.
How is Fish Poop Involved?
In conventional aquaculture, excreted waste — or poop — from the growing fish can build up over time and contaminate the water. In a commercial aquaponic system, however, bacteria filters the poop-filled water. When growing cannabis using aquaponics, the plants’ roots are not in soil. The roots hang down into “grow beds.” These in turn connect to the fish tanks. Bacteria and worms then turn the fish poop into nitrates, which the plants feed off.
This consumption of vital nutrients means the plants act as filters to ensure safe and excellent growing conditions for the fish. The clean water then recirculates back to the system, creating a never-ending closed loop. What emerges from all this is a scaled-down, self-sustaining, ecosystem where both the plants and the fish can flourish.
Aquaponics in History of Crops
The use of aquaponics can be traced all the way back to 1150CE when the Aztecs would raise fish alongside crops. The Mesoamerican civilization would build artificial islands in swamps and shallow lakes and plant maize, squash and other crops upon them.
So how does the use of aquaponics translate for those growing at home with limited space or in larger areas for commercial aquaponics? Here, we take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of this unique growing method.
Advantages of Aquaponics for Cannabis Growers
- Faster growing, top-quality cannabis plants with bigger yields: Cannabis plants tend to complete their life cycle faster when grown using aquaponics. This means plants can be ready to harvest up to ten days earlier than plants grown hydroponically and even earlier in comparison to plants grown in soil. Furthermore, bud yields are usually higher than hydroponic yields and up to twenty five percent higher than soil-grown cannabis plants.
- Completely organic: With commercial aquaponics no additives are necessary to encourage plant growth. No pesticides, no fertilizers, nothing. There is no cheating in an aquaponic system. Adding pesticides or chemical fertilizers will throw the whole ecosystem out of balance, which will in turn impact the fish and potentially kill them. The result of this pure environment is consistently high-quality, organic cannabis.
- Root access: White means cannabis plant roots are healthy, brown means they are unhealthy. With the roots exposed an aquaponic system makes it easy to monitor their health. When growing in soil, this is near impossible.
- Free source of protein, the fish: The added bonus of a large or small scale aquaponics operation is the free protein source. The fish used to make the ecosystem tick may begin as fry but they will inevitably grow bigger. When fully grown the fish can then be removed from the tanks for consumption or given to charity.
Aquaponics’ Environmental Advantages
- Water conservation: In a commercial aquaponic growing system, the grower does not change the water. The water in the tanks will be the same water several years from now. The system only requires more water when it evaporates from the surface. (This can happen under the warmth of artificial light, or when the process of transpiration occurs in the plant leaves.) However that original loop of water with all the nutrients is pretty much there perpetually and research suggests that ninety percent less water is used in aquaponics compared to traditional agriculture. This statistic alone shows how this could greatly benefit arid third world countries suffering from chronic water shortages.
- Self-sustaining model: Aquaponics is one of the most sustainable forms of agriculture. This is due to the complete lack of input once the grower starts the process. Once that mini-ecosystem is established, once the fish, bacteria, worms and plants are collaborating to work in harmony, the grower does not have to add anything to, or alter, the system in any way. So year after year and crop after crop it just keeps humming along and repeating its patterns. It’s basically like owning a little pond that consistently grows high quality produce. And, it does it for as long as you need, the cycle just goes round and round forever. So, it’s no surprise that NASA are looking at the aquaponics model for feeding potential Mars colonies.
Disadvantages of Using Aquaponics
- Set-up costs: Again for a personal growing project, or large scale cannabis production, an aquaponic system will be more expensive than a hydroponic operation. On top of that is the cost of the fish to make the system work. Also, depending on the size of the operation, electricity outputs can be high when using an aquaponic system. This is because the fish tank needs to remain at a certain temperature constantly. Lastly, you have to factor in the cost of powering fans, water pumps and lights among other things. This makes the method more suitable to a large-scale commercial operation.
- Knowledge & adaptation: A person getting into aquaponics would need to become trained in fish farming which would take time and effort. On top of this, hydroponics knowledge is also necessary, as mistakes will affect the plants almost immediately. Then there is the adaptation process, the trial and error of striking the right balance when it comes to the amount of fish and bacteria to suit the specific needs of your cannabis plants.
- Time consuming at the start: During the first few months, the grower must consistently monitor the water. This makes sure its quality is okay for the fish. After the system matures, water testing is only necessary once a week.
People often set up Aquaponics in underground climate-controlled areas. This means that a commercial aquaponics set-up usually doesn’t have the problem of adapting to the elements. Once the grower creates the ecosystem and it settles into its rhythm, it’s growing season all year long. This brings unparalleled consistency in production and product quality.
While setting up a DIY home-based aquaponics system to grow your own cannabis is laborious and expensive, it can provide high-quality organic cannabis with very little water use.