The idea is simple, as extension specialist Chris Mullins demonstrated at Virginia State University’s Randolph Farm Thursday morning. Essentially, water from a tank containing fish is routed through hydroponic pipes used to grow greens or herbs before it is returned to the tank. The plants benefit from the nutrients the fish provide to the water, and the fish benefit from the filtration the plants help carry out.
“Fish production and plant production: it’s combining those together for mutual benefits,” said Chris Mullins, who with his father Joe presented a small-scale aquaponics system to several dozen farmers and citizens attending an aquaculture field day at VSU.
While aquaponics wasn’t the only subject of conversation at Thursday’s field day, the apparatus composed of a tank, two barrels, eight PVC pipes, a pump and some tubing attracted the most attention.
“If you had a bigger system and you had a market for lettuce, you could really make some money,” said Joe Mullins.
In fact, as the world’s population continues to grow, ballooning from its current 7.5 billion people to almost 10 billion by 2050, finding alternative methods of food production may increasingly become crucial.
“You people who are into farming are going to have to find a way to feed them,” he pointed out.
On Thursday, farmers displayed an impressive array of techniques and tools that can help increase this field's production.
Aquaculture development agent Louis Landesman spoke with farmers about water quality tests. Specialist Brian Nerrie gave visitors an up-close look at shrimp being raised in greenhouse tanks. And farmer Donnie Perry showed off several floating mesh cages that he uses on his property in Gloucester to raise trout.
The model Perry has developed has proved particularly successful for his fish-farming business, with the ability to raise several hundred fish that can be easily viewed, fed and harvested by farmers through a convenient flip top. An attached pump ensures that water stays aerated and in motion, keeping the fish healthy, and a fine mesh on the upper section of the cage makes sure that feed stays accessible to them.
“A happy fish is a feeding fish,” said Perry.
A look at the data reveal that Virginia must be full of happy fish indeed: according to the Virginia Aquaculture Conference, the state ranks 11th nationally in aquaculture sales, 10th in aquaculture food fish sales and first in both hard clam production and East Coast oyster production.
“This state has a lot of water, both in the marine and freshwater environments,” said Nerrie. “We’re a fish-eating population, so we want to produce as much as we possibly can to supply good-quality seafood, shrimp, fish, freshwater and marine, not only for our own consumption, but to sell.”