Partners Jon Parr and Drew Hopkins are attempting to create the largest commercial aquaponics operation in the country at a former rose nursery. If all goes as planned, they'll fill 350,000 square feet of greenhouses with fruits, vegetables and fish within 18 months, all grown in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner.
"This is the future of agriculture," said Hopkins.
The concept isn't new. Ancient farmers used the technique. The modern version of aquaponics, which combines hydroponics -- the practice of growing plants in water - and aquaculture or fish farming, dates back to at least the 1960s.
But it's never been done on the scale Parr and Hopkins envision for the 10-acre property they purchased a few weeks ago for $2.32 million.
Growing partnershipParr, a Soquel resident, is a former contractor who was casting about for a new line as the construction industry tanked. Aquaponics had been a hobby, and he spent several years researching the topic before hooking up with Hopkins and moving forward with the commercial venture.
A family tragedy brought Hopkins to Santa Cruz from Park City, Utah. An event promoter and contractor, he said life hadn't been the same since his son was killed in a snowmobile accident a few years ago. But in April, he and his wife came to Santa Cruz to visit friends, and during a pleasant evening at the Crow's Nest, began to imagine a new life. He also had been interested in aquaponics, and a friend introduced him to Parr.
Their vision is to create a self-contained operation. The aquaponics system will allow them to use far less water than conventional growers, and no fertilizer or pesticides. To control bugs, they'll regularly infuse greenhouses with carbon dioxide, a by-product of the wood-chip burning gasification oven that will power the generator that will supply electricity.
Aquaponics is so efficient, Parr said, they'll be able to grow a head of lettuce in a month and more than four heads in a square foot, each month all year. A conventional farmer might get one head of lettuce per square foot, and two to three crops per year, he said.
In three years, they'll be able to send 15-pound sturgeon to the market as well.
If it sounds too good to be true, Parr said he thought so too at first. But his research and experience have convinced him it will work.
A ready market?
Not everybody is so sure about the economics, even advocates.
Chris Newman started Santa Cruz Aquaponics in 2009 in a rented Corralitos greenhouse. By the end of 2011, he was out of business and his $350,000 investment gone.
"It does seem like a great idea, but I'm not convinced the vegetable world is ready for it," Newman said.
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Rob Morgan plans to build aquaponic farms in Haiti, to help the locals to recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake.
The idea behind the nonprofit came to Morgan after a trip to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. An architect by training, he traveled there with members of Steele Creek Presbyterian Church, expecting to design shelters for some of the 1.5 million people left homeless.
He returned with the conviction that food production was a greater need.
“I’ve never been that close to so much hurt and emotion,” Morgan said. “It changes you completely.”
Morgan hopes to build 100 gardens – 67 in the Charlotte area, paired with 33 in Haiti – using a soilless growing technique called aquaponics that relies on fish to fertilize plants cultivated in water.
The gardens here would serve mostly to educate students; the gardens in Haiti would provide dinner.
Because there’s little arable land available in Haiti, other groups are also experimenting with aquaponics. Covenant Day School of Matthews built a small garden there.
But Morgan’s journey, as he put it, may be one of the craziest you’ll read about.
“I had no idea where I was headed or what I was doing. At my age, you’ve got nothing to lose,” said Morgan, 71. “I figured I might as well follow this thing until it adds up.”
Read more about Morgan in this article: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2013/08/10/4227374/ron-morgans-quest-to-feed-haiti.html#storylink=cpy