NMC-CREES aquaculture specialist gives a presentation on aquaponics. Desert areas of the world have long been locations that provide minimal subsistance to the indigenous populations because a lack of annual rainfall. A solution to the problem could be Aquaponics.
Green thumbs from the Northern Marianas College-Cooperative Research Extension and Education Service gave members of the Saipan Rotary Club a neat lesson about aquaponics and hydroponics during the organization’s weekly meeting yesterday at the Hyatt Regency Saipan.
NMC-CREES aquaculture specialist Michael Ogo and outreach coordinator Claus Bier gave presentations on aquaponics and hydroponics and how well suited these soil-less way of planting crops are in the Commonwealth.
Ogo said NMC-CREES introduced aquaponics to the islands after realizing that a lot of its tilipia farmers were having a hard time with the cost of production, specifically with the high price of feed and electricity.
“So we looked into how we can assist these farms basically to reduce their production costs and we realized that while it takes about five to six months for a fish to grow to market size, the ebb flow of the water they’re using can be utilized for the production of vegetables,” he said.
To this end NMC-CREES sent staff to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2011 to study aquaponics from the pioneer of the technique himself, Dr. Jim Rakowski.
“It was his last year as researcher at University of the Virgin Islands and we wanted to make sure that we attended his training before he left,” said Ogo.
Rakowski studied at Auburn University and spent the last 30 to 40 years in aquaponics production research at UVI. He is now a consultant based out of Thailand.
Ogo and company also visited Hawaii because, he said, a lot of the aquaponics and hydroponics activity in the world is currently happening in Hawaii.
Through what they learned from their off-island work study trips, NMC-CREES was able to establish aquaponics as a viable soil-less technique for growing vegetables and fruits on the island. Ogo said there are presently four aquaponics farms in the CNMI.
One such farm, he said, is NMC-CREES’ partnership with Marianas Business Plaza and its general manager, Eric Van Der Mass.
NMC-CREES helped the businessman build an aquaponics system on the third floor of the former Nauru Building in Susupe. Ogo said the setup is capable of producing 1,200 lettuce per crop. “So you’re looking at 1,200 lettuce every four weeks.”
Ogo and company also helped the Municipality of Rota secure a $270,000 grant from the Office of Insular Affairs to start a commercial aquaponics demonstration on the island.
“They just sent five Mayor of Rota staff to Hawaii for three months where they got training on every aspect of aquaponics production. The second phase of the project is to construct the demonstration facility, which they are doing now in Sinapalo. The next phase of the project is bring these vegetables into production and start exporting leafy or fruit type of vegetables to the island of Guam.”
Broken down, Ogo said, aquaponics is a method of soil-less agriculture where the fish becomes the main supplier of the nutrients to the plant.
“It’s fish, bacteria, and plants. The fish produces the ammonia. The bacteria converts the ammonia into nitrates which is fertilizer and the plant takes the nitrates and returns the water back to the tank clean and the cycle goes on.”
Aquaponics is viable in the CNMI because of many factors.
“We live in an island environment so this type of system takes less space than traditional agriculture. It requires less water because you’re growing things in water. It’s sustainable and it’s organic. Plants can be planted closer than in traditional agriculture. Food security is also achieved because you eliminate the use of agricultural inputs, may it be fertilizer or pesticides.”
Ogo said there are three aquaponics systems—ebb and flow or flood and drain; deep water culture system; and nutrient filled technique or NFT.
The more commercial of the three is the deep water culture system that Rakowski pioneered, while the ebb and flow system is the backyard type.
Hyrdroponics is adding nutrients
Bier began his presentation by making a distinction between hydroponics and aquaponics. He said the former is different from the latter due to hydroponics requiring nutrients or adding fertilizer to the water.
He said hydroponics is a subset of hydroculture and is a method of growing plants using mineral-nutrient solution water without soil. There are two types of hydroponics systems—circulating and non-circulating.
“The advantage of hydroponics is you don’t need any soil so you won’t have any soil-born diseases, which are often seen around the islands. There is little labor. You just have to set up your system and forget it. More or less, you just have to come back later and harvest it.”
Hydroponics also has very low water consumption and very little to no power consumption and that nutrient levels can be adjusted to the specific plant inside the system.
“You only feed the plant you want to grow as opposed to growing plants on soil where weeds can also get the nutrients. It’s also gives a high yield. We planted radish and it tasted good and this coming from a German whose home country has radish as a staple.”
He said their goal in hydroponics is to keep it as simple as possible with the least material needed and one doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to set it up. Only $25 is needed to setup a hydroponics system, he added.
“Once it is set up you can forget about it. It’s a planting technique, like one of your members said, that’s designed for old people.” Rotary Club gets lessons in aquaponics, hydroponics.
Aquaponics is a coupling of Aquaculture and Hydroponics into a farming method that uses 90 percent less water than conventional farming methods. By incorporating this new method these long unproductive areas of the world can become part of the food producing community. The production of organic vegetables and fish could also produce economic benefits in jobs and income into desert communities.