The Newton Abbot farmers employing fish to grow their veg
PUBLISHED: 10:20 22 May 2018 | UPDATED: 10:20 22 May 2018
Using fish to grow vegetables? It sounds crazy but it works. CHRISSY HARRIS finds out as she visits an aquaponics farm. Pictures: Steve Haywood
The sliding door, glass roof, raised beds full of ripe and ready tomatoes, chillies and herbs. So far, this 200ft by 20ft outbuilding on Old Quarry Farm in Newton Abbot looks like your average large greenhouse.
But wait? What’s that strange bubbling sound? At the far end, past the giant lemongrass stalks and poblano peppers sit six 4,000-litre fish tanks.
Inside, hundreds of goldfish are going about the daily business of providing the crucial nutrients needed to make the plants grow.
Water from their (not overcrowded) tanks is pumped back up through a series of pipes, flooding each bed with nitrate-rich water every few minutes.
Instead of soil, the roots hang free in this magic water, soaking up the goodness and helping some plants to grow at an incredible rate and full of flavour.
Thyme that would normally take three weeks to germinate takes three days under this system, according to owner and aquaponics farmer Bruce Reed.
“It’s amazing, really,” he says, as he shows me around the productive and sustainable crops he has been able to grow on this derelict bit of land his family inherited more than 20 years ago.
Once the site of an old quarry, this ten-acre stretch of poor soil overlooking the A380 was deemed unsuitable for anything.
But five years ago, Bruce and brother Charles, whose family have farmed the land in this area for decades, struck upon an idea.
“I was clearing out this huge fishpond and I thought: there’s so much growth here,” says Bruce. “I realised that it was because of all the nutrients that were coming from the fish waste.
“I thought for a minute that I’d invented something amazing.”
When he looked online, Bruce realised aquaponics – a system that combines the raising of aquatic animals with cultivating plants in water (hydroponics) – was already being done in places such as Scandinavia and Australia.
“So it turned out I was reinventing the wheel, but that didn’t matter,” says Bruce. “I thought, if they can do it in other countries, we can do it here.”
After years spent wondering what to do on this area of wasteland, Bruce set to work building an 8ft by 6ft glasshouse on the site, complete with a 1,000-litre fish tank and some goldfish, known for their resilience.
A few weeks later, there were strawberries, sage and other vegetables to harvest.
“The growth we got in there was phenomenal and the crops were so full of flavour,” says Bruce. “So we built another grow-house.”
This one was bigger and in a “terrible” position in terms of sunlight but still produced a bumper crop.
“A friend of mine told me he hadn’t tasted basil like that since he was in the Mediterranean,” says Bruce, who was by now convinced this plan could work.
He and brother Charles, an environmental biologist, then spent months clearing densely overgrown bushes and trees to make way for a series of wooden structures and pathways that would make up their aquaponics farm.
The brothers – who built everything themselves – used recycled or reusable building materials wherever possible, part of the environmentally sustainable ethos at the heart of this project.
Rain is relied on to provide much of the water needed and solar panels help with the power supply.
The hard work is starting to pay off and the farm now produces an amazing variety of crops, including heirloom tomatoes and lemon basil, which fill the on-site shop, plus the veg boxes that get sent out to a growing number of local customers.
“Everyone I talk to thinks this is an amazing idea,” says Bruce, as we listen to the ‘fish’ water gurgle up the pipes towards the first raised bed.
With a cough and splutter, the water then drains out of the tap, flooding the plants with nutrients before heading down to the next crop.
“Some people have been uneasy about the fact the food comes from fish waste but it’s only the same as vegetables coming from any other farm,” says Bruce. “Once people understand we are simply fertilising the crops with recycled waste like farmers do in the fields with other crops, then they feel better about it.”
Cow poo, fish poo, all crops have to get their nutrients somehow. But with fewer chemicals and less space needed, is aquaponics the way forward for farming?
“It’s part of the future,” says Bruce, aware that this system won’t work for every foodstuff.
“It’s part of the future for some crops and it’s one of the ways you can make use of derelict land. That’s what this was all about.”
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What is aquaponics?
In its simplest form, aquaponics is like a pond. Fish in the water eat food and excrete waste products.
These waste products are broken down by friendly bacteria and absorbed by plants, which helps to keep the water clean.
In aquaponics, the fish are in tanks and the water is filtered through grow beds containing the friendly bacteria in crops, before returning clean to the fish tank.
In an aquaponic system the use of pesticides would threaten the fish ecosystem.
To maintain the symbiotic relationship between the plants and the fish, non-chemical methods such as traps, physical barriers and biological control (such as parasitic wasps or ladybirds to control white flies and aphids) should be used to control pests.