A lot of people keep fish in their homes.
Not many people use the excrement from those fish to grow herbs, salad greens, or tomatoes.
But they can. Quite easily.
Rene Michalak’s goal, through ReThink Red Deer’s series of ‘Productive Pets’ weekend workshops providing introductions to permaculture, is to show that animals can be used in urban environments to help produce food on a small scale.
Over the weekend, the first of the workshops focused on building an aquaponic growing system — using fish in a tank to enable the growth of plants on top.
While there were no actual fish involved Sunday, the afternoon was spent putting together the tank and accompanying pumping system that would allow for the plant growth.
A repurposed 750-litre plastic industrial container would house dozens of tilapia; three or four times per hour a pump would bring water — and the fish’s excrement — from the tank up to the bed of coconut husks and biochar (charcoal) on top, creating a growing environment that could support any number of plants.
“It enables you to not have to clean the tank out and dispose of the (poop); it actually becomes the fertilizer for the plants. That’s the meaning of ‘productive pets.’ They’re doing more than just providing companionship,” said Michalak.
The aquaponic growing system is a major part of Michalak’s Food Garage project that would see a regular garage turned into an “organic grocery store” and renewable-energy generator. His plan is to incorporate six of the fish “totes” into the garage, growing tilapia that could be eaten along with the plants they help to grow.
Not every system would have to be that big, though, he said.
Aside from the fish and a place to keep them, all that is really needed is a pump and a light for the plants.
“It could be as simple as a regular aquarium that people would have in their home anyways and they just put a herb garden on top,” said Michalak, who was using pop bottles as part of his setup.
Derek Reid has been researching aquaponics systems for close to five years and, through the Edmonton Aquaponics Society, is working on setting up some microsystems that should be viewable by the public by early next year.
He said for a few hundred dollars, a person could set up a small-scale system right now quite easily.
“It’s very scalable. You can have a windowsill system or there are commercial systems that are quite vast,” said Reid.
While he said the idea has really caught on in Australia and parts of the U.S., the issue in Canada is maintaining enough warmth to keep the system going through the year.
To do so he said one would need to operate the system in a basement or heated garage, as temperature regulation in a greenhouse would be a challenge.
While the weekend workshop only drew one registrant, Michalak said that was largely down to its proximity to Christmas.
Workshops in January, February and March will focus on bee hives, worm composting, and chicken coops and are open for registration.
Michalak said he hopes the first aquaponics system for the Food Garage project will be up and running by spring.