The Farming Fish

Published in New Pioneer Magazine

By: Michael Hasey

Spring 2013 issue

That’s right. Thanks to Aquaponics, tilapia feed the hydroponic and in-ground crops at this innovative hillside farm.

Bob Marley’s “Do It Twice” sounds from the alarm, well before the sun peeks its face from behind the mountaintop, even before the rooster has taken his warm wings from his special hens to crow and start the day.

We rise to the occasion, sip our cup, check our lists, and dive into our chores. It starts like this: open up the chicken coops and lay some feed down for the chickens, turn on the drip irrigation, water the seedlings, observe the night bugs, enjoy the sunrise, help Olivia off to the farm­er’s market, do some seeding, hold a heavy steel object while Coyote cus­tomizes the tractor, stock 700 fry and harvest 1600 lbs. of tilapia…. What?


Welcome to a not-so-average, organic farm centered on aquaponics. This is a wild and beautiful land with poor soil and steep slopes. Upon moving to our new home more than one neighbor with good intentions warned us that “nothing will grow there, in that red clay.” The property has two primary growing areas. Only one is currently being used as I write this piece; the other is home for some mustangs. The area we first focused on putting into cultivation was the steeper of the two and seemingly the least desirable for farmland. But as I said before, this is not your average farm.

Since aquaponics is the center of our farm plan, we wanted a property with clean water, in abundance, with strong rights to it. We found that here. We also dreamed of a property where one day we could generate our own power via wind, solar and/or hydro­electricity. The land is surrounded by windy peaks, has a southern exposure and pristine mountain stream with lots of drop that falls right through the center of the land.


When most people think of the life cycle of a farm they imagine a plot of dirt, rows being cultivated, fertilizer, tractor, produce and a farmer. Perhaps not readers of The New Pioneer, but the average Joe. Well for us the life cycle starts in the woods, well above the aquaponic system and rows of veg­gies. Having woods near a farm offers real stability to the land; it helps main­tain more consistent temperatures, it cools during the day and helps to hold heat at night.

For this reason and many others we placed our largest greenhouse right next to the forest. It’s in these woods that we retrieve our water, the life blood of our farm. With its microor­ganisms, it makes our aquaponics sys­tem thrive, boosts the microbes in our soil and quenches our plants’ thirst.

These woods are also home to ben­eficial insects, birds and other flora and fauna that collectively serve im­portant ecological niches. At times we harvest small amounts of fluff from the forest floor to aid capillary action or add humus to our gardens. The woods are also our wild harvest area. While much of this bounty stays on our dinner table, we sell some at our local farmer’s markets: wildflow­ers, mushrooms, blackberries, miner’s lettuce, wild mint, lamb’s quarters, chamomile, lemon balm and more.


In the stream we have a simple dam of sticks and mud. Just before this dam is a gas powered trash pump with a (tiny by agricultural standards) 1-inch poly pipe. It is the backbone of all our water needs. We put a cap full of gasoline in the motor to prime the pump and line. We run the irriga­tion system one zone at a time with pressure from gravity and the water stored behind the dam. We use this water to fill the aquaponics system when needed as well

Most water-wise irrigation systems are more economical to install than larger ones. Ours is made up of mi­cro-sprinklers and drip heads. The mi­cro-sprinklers are installed over all of the raised beds or high-layered rows and the drip heads are placed in the garden areas we refer to as the viney patches. That’s where we grow pump­kins, melons, squash.

We copied the ancient agriculture practices of the Maya people, using permanent raised beds that we layer mulch and compost, practicing ter­racing, managing fallows, forest gar­dens and harvesting from the wild. We keep deep furrows around all our growing beds; this helps channel and capture water.

To learn more about what we are doing, visit our Facebook page and our website:

For sustainable agricultural services and aquaponic design and consulting for your own system contact


The Aquaponics System

In our greenhouse, roughly 8000 square feet, about 60,000 gallons of water re-circulate through the system. Our aquapon­ics system uses 90% percent less water than a comparable area of soil-grown crops does. The system produces about 10,000 heads of lettuce a month or roughly 22,000 pounds of leafy greens and herbs. We harvest about 1600 pounds of tilapia. Although it brings us a welcome source of delicious protein, our main focus is on the veggies.

We feed our fish in tanks separated yet connected via plumbing from the veggies in the hydroponic runs. The fish are happy to take as much food as they can get. They take this feed and gain weight for market as well as produce waste, which feeds a colony of beneficial bacteria.

The water from each of the six tanks flows into a biological filtration tank where bacteria digest the waste into nutrients, Notosomonas convert the ammonia to nitrite and Nitorbacter consume the nitrite and convert it to nitrate. The nitrate enriched water then circulates through the hydroponic tanks and/or into the terraced in-ground beds below.

In hydroponics there is no such nitro­gen cycle. The necessary nitrogen and/or fertilizer is added directly to the water in a soluble and synthetic form. With aquaponics all the fertilizer is created and maintained within the system in a more natural process.

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