Farmer Michael Dickson believes aquaponic gardening — a system of growing fish and vegetables together — can be the ideal way to grow food in urban areas.

Dickson, owner of Seed of Life Nurseries Inc. in Frederick, exhibited the food-growing method and shared other gardening tips recently at Ag Week at The Mall in Frederick, which offered the public a glimpse of Frederick County’s $200 million agriculture industry.

"Aquaponics is a revolutionary combination of the best of aquaculture and hydroponics — and an amazingly fun and easy way to raise fish together with organic vegetables, greens, herbs and fruits," according to aquaponicgardening.com. "Aquaponic systems are much more productive and use up to 90 percent less water than conventional gardens. Other advantages include no weeds, fewer pests, and no watering, fertilizing, bending, digging or heavy lifting."

Dickson said aquaponic farming functions on a closed-loop system that cultivates both organic fish and vegetables for consumption. This process is a symbiotic relationship between fish and plants. The fish effluent is converted into natural plant food, then filtered through plant absorption, returning viable water back to the fish habitat. This recirculating environment permits both cultures to grow at an accelerated rate without producing any waste or using chemicals.

Quick crop vegetables, such as assorted lettuces, chards, spinach, turnips and greens, endives, watercress, arugula and fresh herbs are ideal in this process due to their aggressive nature to grow in low nutrient conditions, Dickson said. When these vegetable plants grow in an aquaponic farming environment, they are able to more quickly absorb nutrients, thus reducing growth time cycles.

According to traditional farming practices, one lettuce plant needs 1.5-square-foot of soil for a 60-day harvestable growth cycle.

“In the aquaponic growth bed, we will grow six times more lettuce in the same square footage with half the growth time needed,” Dickson said. “This equates to 12 plants harvested in aquaponic farming versus one in traditional farming.”

Tilapia and catfish also grow faster in aquaponic conditions, Dickson said.

A small aquaponic system that produces 20 pounds of produce a month will cost about $300; using recycled materials will cost between $100 to $125, Dickson said.

Dickson is no stranger to finding ways to grow food. He has organized a collaborative effort to help counter hunger locally.

Working with the Middletown FFA, local churches and the community, Dickson started Bethel Farm in Frederick, a 20-acre tract that grows lettuce, tomatoes, pumpkins, squash, radishes, potatoes and other vegetables. Much of the food the venture grows is donated and delivered to needy people in Frederick. The remainder is sold to raise additional funds for the farm.

Lisa and Peter Moholt, of Gaithersburg, said Dickson’s presentation gave them confidence about their gardening skills.

“You can feed people, but educating people on how to grow their own food is a lot more important,” Lisa Moholt said. “You got to teach people how to fish. I learned a lot of helpful, useful, take-home tips, and I like the idea of reducing your carbon footprint by growing a garden.”

Peter Moholt liked Dickson’s tips on inexpensively growing food in a small space, and without insecticides or pesticides.

“I thought his presentation was awesome. It offered very practical tips,” Moholt said.

Dickson wants to grow more food. He plans to start a 350-acre farm in Emmitsburg later this year to grow produce for the Maryland Food Bank and Maryland schools. The land was bought by a group of local businessmen, he said. The project will create 30 new jobs and, when fully operational, add 80 new positions to the local workforce.

“We’re planning to grow the food, then freeze, package and deliver it to different locations,” Dickson said.

What are the benefits of growing aquaponically?

Aquaponics gardening enables home fish farming. You can now feel good about eating fish again.Aquaponics gardening uses 90 percent less water than soil-based gardening.Aquaponics gardening is twice as productive on a square-foot basis as soil-based gardening.Aquaponics gardening is free from weeds, watering and fertilizing concerns, and because it is done at a waist-high level, there is no back strain.Aquaponics gardening is necessarily organic. Natural fish waste provides all the food the plants need. Pesticides would be harmful to the fish. Hormones, antibiotics and other fish additives would be harmful to the plants. And the result is every bit as flavorful as soil-based organic produce.Aquaponics gardening consumes no energy to transport out-of-season produce to distant markets across the globe because you will be able to select your own produce from the garden right in your own home.

Is aquaponics organic?

It doesn’t work unless it is organic. Think about it. If you were to add chemicals, antibiotics, or other artificial additives to your aquaponic fish tank it would harm your plants. If you use pesticides or growth stimulants to your plants, it will harm your fish. Your plants are being grown with “composted” animal waste. Aquaponics works as well as it does because of how well it mimics nature. The closer you are to pure nature, the better your system will work.

Is Aquaponically grown produce safe from E. coli and Salmonella?Yes, because fish are cold blooded animals their waste does not, and cannot, contain either of these pathogens. In fact, there was a recent study done by the College of Tropical Agriculture in Hawaii titled “A Preliminary Study of Microbial Water Quality Related to Food Safety in Recirculating Aquaponic Fish and Vegetable Production Systems” that explored this very question and concluded that, in general, aquaponically grown food is even safer than soil-grown food.

Can I grow outdoors in the winter?

That depends on your winter, the type of plants you are growing and the type of fish you are using. All three living components to an aquaponics system (fish, plants, bacteria) need to be bio-active in order for the system to thrive, or at least survive until the following spring.

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