A new generation of farmers is looking at technological innovations in aquaponics as a way to deal with the looming world hunger problem. While the science behind hydroponics and aquaponics has been around for decades, the industry saw the technology as too expensive until recently.
That shift in view has more companies and entrepreneurs interested in hydroponics and aquaponics. Locally, Grand Rapid-based $15 million seed fund Start Garden has funded a number of hydroponics and aquaponics business ideas through the first tier of its funding system.
One such idea that received $5,000 in funding is Brian Falther’s Future Tech Farm, a modular aquaponics concept.
“Within the next 40 years or so, we’re not going to have enough land to farm for the amount of people that will be living on earth,” Falther said. “What we’re trying to do now is create another way of food production that doesn’t take up any more land than is already being used.”
Aquaponics works by combining the processes of hydroponics and a fish hatchery. The fish produce waste in the water that is circulated through a biofilter that uses aerobic bacteria to break down the waste into nitrates and nutrients that plants can use. Then, the clean water is recirculated to the fish. The idea is that, through a closed-loop system, the amount of outside input the system requires is kept to a minimum.
Commercial aquaponics operations often entail large greenhouses and hatchery tanks, but Falther’s concept instead uses microwave-sized, stackable hexagons that contain a bottom tank for small fish and a top growing platform. The goal is to get to a closed-loop system at the smaller scale, but currently, Falther’s idea requires the “external input” of fish food, he said.
Commercial-scale aquaponics operations grow their own duckweed, which can be used as food for the fish.
“Right now, we’re trying to figure out how to integrate a system that will create its own feed within the system,” he said.
Falther designed the concept to be able to stack multiple units in a compact space, which lends itself particularly well to the urban gardening movement. Falther said he expects consumers will ultimately buy multiple units and combine them into a comprehensive system.
“I envision people having an entire wall dedicated in their home to having all these units with everything staggered so you have a constant source of harvestable food,” Falther said, acknowledging the concept’s scale limits its capabilities. “Obviously this system, by itself, isn’t going to feed a family of four on a daily basis — it’s just not big enough.”
Falther sees his initial product as merely a supplement for traditional agriculture, his main competitor. This obstacle is what has, in part, prevented past Start Garden aquaponics and hydroponics ideas from taking off, according to Mike Morin, team member at Start Garden. The limiting factor, as with any type of agriculture, is the amount of area that is covered by crops; scalability is determined simply by acreage.
“(In traditional farming), the extent to which you can scale is determined by how much land you have,” Morin said. “This is more toward an urban farming kind of picture where you’re growing your own food. Looking at it as an analyst, it’s got to be scalable.”
The urban farming movement is the initial target of Falther’s product, but the twist is that his modular farm concept also integrates a sophisticated data-gathering technology into the modules, so that farmers can compare and contrast methods and yields.
“Say you’re growing lettuce, and you’re able to grow lettuce in 25 days. I’ve only been able to get down to 35 days. So, what’s the difference between your system and my system that allows you to grow so much faster?” Falther said. “I can look at your data and see what kind of variables you’re measuring, what kind of outputs your system has and then compare that to my own.”
This data is available to the entire network of farmers. The idea is that farmers, instead of buying standalone urban farming systems, will, in a sense, be buying a tiny plot on a global virtual farm.
“People are developing systems that are standalone, physical products, but what they’re not doing is connecting people to people and systems to systems,” Falther said. “You’re not really buying a system from us, you’re buying a plot on the farm.”
Falther plans to grow that virtual farm as well, not just in terms of the number of participating consumers, but also in the size of each module. He plans to scale the data gathered by individual farmers with small modules up to commercial aquaponics farms the size of shipping containers. These modules would also incorporate the farming of fish for consumption by breeding tilapia or salmon.
While it remains to be seen whether or not Falther’s system is a viable product for the marketplace, Morin said the Start Garden team is willing to work with Falther to develop a business that is sustainable and will give the seed fund a return on its capital investment.
“It’s a combination of experiment in technology and experiment in economic viability,” Morin said. “Can it be done at a price point that is competitive?”
To find this out, Falther is constructing ten prototypes and is looking to install them in several businesses and restaurants in the Grand Rapids area for a trial period. He hopes to get feedback from the restaurants’ owners to see if they would be willing to buy the module after the trial period is completed. Once the modules are on the market, Falther also plans to sell the farmers replacement cartridges of seeds on a subscription basis to provide a steady revenue stream.
Ultimately, Falther plans to develop a next generation of the modular farm that does not require a primary power source and moves the concept closer to “complete sustainability.”
“The endgame for us is replacing contemporary farming and having it completely based on technology instead of being unsustainable,” Falther said.