Just over the hill from Monterey County hides the largest known aquaponics farm in the world.
There the fish – hundreds of them, largely sturgeon – help feed the veggies, the veggies’ roots help filter the fish water and both feed humans.
Though the new Watsonville farm, Viridis Aquaponics, is just starting to build out its capacity – and add things like wood chip gasification and soldier-fly composting that make it a permaculture nerd’s dream – it can already pump out 5,000 heads of beautiful lettuce a day.
Jon Parr, the man whose Google- and self-taught designs made the operation possible, commutes there from Monterey. The drive takes him over the Pajaro River and through a few neighboring farms.
Pajaro River, at this point, is a misnomer. Rivers flow. This doesn’t. The hills surrounding Viridis – in Latin, “green, youthful and lively” – are golden brown, as California dries and cracks with record drought. The river and fields offer contrast – and context – for the increasingly lush farm inside. Thanks to its elegantly simple circulation loops, it uses 5 percent of the water conventional ag does, max, and none of the pesticides or fertilizers.
Water and purity occupy the heart of a Viridis Aquaponics story that connects everything: a history of waste and a future of climate-proof food, down-to-earth soil science and experiments in space, big fish (sturgeon and koi) and bigger ambitions (aquaponics in every school and every hungry community).
It also has something you don’t want in any story, but something that helped trigger the advent of advanced aquaponics that could and should change the fate of agriculture: the loss of a much-loved young son to a tragic accident.
Estimates are 14-year-old Hadyn K. Hopkins, or “Huk,” was going 100 mph when his suped-up snowmobile hit an invisible bump in the Deer Valley, Utah, snow. He did these kind of things. Steep mountain bike runs were named after him. He took on Shaun White in skateboard tricks before hundreds. He had just committed to train for the Sochi Olympics.
Only the bump hit, and the sled shot off the road and into the backcountry trees, slicing a quaking aspen in half. Huk hit the next tree with his helmet.
From that phone call on, Hadyn’s mom, Terese, refused to return to the house that reminded her of her son. His dad, Drew, admits he was similarly unmoored, without much enthusiasm to return to lucrative work as a resort director.
“We are pre-programmed to leave a legacy,” he says. “When a man loses his son, when his only son is gone… ”
His voice trails off, then returns.
“I spent a lot of time with my 5-year-old [daughter], a lot of time walking, thinking, ‘Where are we going to live? What are we gonna do?’”
The thinking brought him to a realization, thanks, he says, to “an elevation of consciousness that only people who have had a loss like that understand. New things became very important to me.”
His determination: A real legacy for his huge extended family – and a wider human family dependent on shipping to get its nourishment – wasn’t going to be found in resorts, but in robust and localized agriculture.
“I wanted a big garden, I wanted to provide for everybody,” he says.
He started studying high-performance ag in earnest and soon found its grail in aquaponics.
Its bona fides are certainly compelling: Aquaponics systems can produce eight times the food as the same square footage on land, with one-twentieth of the water (if not less), partly because the plants get all the food and water they can. Gravity-driven loops mean very little energy is needed to power a simple, single pump. No crops require rotating, because the water does the circulating.
Last year, on the second anniversary of Huk’s death, his parents sought refuge from memories by visiting friends in Santa Cruz. There Terese found an ease in the sea air and coastal heat she hadn’t shown since the tragedy – “She came back to life,” Drew says – and he was introduced to John Parr at a barbecue.
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Parr didn’t want a partner. All the longtime masonry contractor wanted, at first anyway, was a backyard garden. A few years previous, at his then-Santa Cruz Mountain home, militant gophers made that impossible. Raised beds and protective wire got too expensive, so he turned to hydroponics in his garage.
But it had a major flaw, at least to Parr, beyond equipment prices artificially inflated by the marijuana-growing trade: Like most sealed and sterile hydroponics systems, it wouldn’t work without chemical nutrients to feed the plants. He had to go to the store.
“The whole reason you have a garden is so you don’t have to go to the store,” he says. “You grab a tomato while you’re walking into your home. You’re self-sufficient. Supporting some commercial arrangement defeated the point!”
He set up a 55-gallon fish tank from PetSmart, hooked it to a five-gallon bucket filled with gravel, floated in a Cherokee purple heirloom tomato and promptly started hunting down every last soluble drop of aquaponics info he could.
“I’m a sponge,” he says, exalting Google over classrooms and his builder’s IQ over existing models.
The Cherokee heirloom lived four years; his knowledge is still growing. Today he’s a self-made scientist and a leading hydroponics expert who speaks at conferences and tinkers relentlessly.
“I don’t tend to copy other systems,” he says. “I’d rather educate myself on all the science and chemistry and biology and physics components, then I’m confident in what I’m building… and I tend to think I can build a better mousetrap.”
He adds another key: “Believing nature finds a way is a really helpful guide.”
With hydroponics he had to keep a sterile environment where things are done to prevent contamination. With aquaponics, he invited the previously unwanted menagerie.
“I encourage natural components, diversity,” he says. “That way if you have a hiccup or flaw or toxicity, find out what in nature handles that and encourage it.”
By the time he met Hopkins, a slick mousetrap had emerged from endless trials. And Hopkins was offering just the kind of financial and connection-making capital Parr needed. A business plan hatched in May, with the goal of ultimately harvesting 800,000 heads of lettuce a month, every month of the year. Additional investors, silent types who later sent along a plant biologist to help, came in June. Escrow on the greenhouse, which they acquired from Obertello Nursery for around $2.4 million, closed in July.
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The farm’s first open house came late last month. Guests, largely recruited at organic growing super gathering EcoFarm at Asilomar Conference Grounds that week, walked wide-eyed through fields of floating produce. They watched prehistoric-looking sturgeon – selected for their tolerance of temperature and salinity, native California roots and tastiness on the plate – swimming in 500-gallon cylindrical tanks of water.
A modest sump pump, drawing the only power a basic system needs, swirls their waste to the top of the tank, where it’s siphoned to a neighboring tank with filter-feeding snails, beetles, water bugs and freshwater zooplankton, some seeded, others volunteers. Those organisms feast on the rising waste, breaking it down into nitrates, which plants love.
Gravity pushes that nitrate-rich water into a floating charcoal bed, or “media” bed. (More on the charcoal in a minute.) That grows vegetables that need a little dirt – beets, green onions, carrots and radishes. The water emerging from the other side is fed by gravity via pipes beneath rafts of kohlrabi and butter leaf lettuce – hundreds of square feet all told. Then the water, its nutrients exhausted, runs back into the big fish tank to be replenished with more natural fertilizers.
This enclosed system, or “matrix” as Hopkins and Parr call it, occupies a small corner of the property but supports 500 square feet in produce beds. Its design is thoroughly scaleable. The greenhouse can fit dozens. More than 10,000 square feet of greens were already growing when the open house happened. And two other creative adaptations will make it more connected and sustainable still.
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Growing up with rabbits his family used for food, Parr was just fine with the killing. (They also raised chicken, goats and milk cows.)
But not the waste.
“It was the disappointing part of the end of life,” Parr says. “All the leftover bones and fat you had to throw away.”
That’s one reason he loves the soldier fly: The detritivore completes another loop by digesting meat, grease, even fur and bones. He explained as much at the open house, speaking quickly but clearly, pausing every now and then to make sure his audience followed – “You with me?” – an understandable impulse given the dense information he covers quickly.
Within a few weeks, Viridis will be able to deliver boxes of velvety bib lettuce heads (as they do now) and exchange them for boxes of kitchen scraps – bones, fur, grease and meat welcome. The only things soldier flies can’t digest are cell walls and connective tissues, which are precisely what worms dig. With worms lying beneath and catching the flies’ castings, everything gets processed into compost gold that warms the greenhouse and Viridis can use or sell.
Other reasons Parr loves them: They eat furiously fast. They take down citrus and garlic, unlike red wrigglers. They’re native. They don’t develop wings for more than a brief mating period, when the adult fly doesn’t have a mouth to, as Parr says, “bite, lick or follow you to the picnic.” The grubs, in fact – meaty, protein-rich – are perfect fish food.
In the Loop
Aquaponics have been around since the Aztecs. But resources remain scarce. Here are some of the best:
- University of Arizona pioneers “controlled environment” higher ed.
- Aquaculturehub.org’s training and resources include a 100 –video certification program.
- Viridis launches monthly intro courses and quarterly advanced courses this spring. More at www.viridisaquaponics.com.
- Making a home matrix easily is the aim of Aquaponics-4Idiots.info.
Hopkins and Parr couldn’t be much more different. “Drew likes shiny things,” Parr says. “He walks in a room, knows what jacket or purse someone has. I shop at Bargain Barn.”
Hopkins agrees: “I am very white couches and clean glass walls, no clutter. John doesn’t throw anything away because he wants to repurpose it.”
Those personalities coexist in the looping system: It’s eyecatchingly slick, its produce is immaculately clean and its components repurpose everything. One of the most progressive and striking cases in point: the gasifier, an oxygenless stove that turns biofuel to gas.
By taking wood chips dropped by the private tree companies (for free) and feeding them into a open source-engineered cooker called a GEK gasifier, an existing byproduct (chips) is turned into a range of things that make the greenhouse’s plants flourish: heat, carbon dioxide, water and carbon.
“We haven’t even started with the CO2,” Parr says. “That can literally double plant growth.”
Parr can extract something from the gasifier midprocess called biochar – basically pure carbon or charcoal, the same stuff vendors were peddling at EcoFarm to boost farm ecology naturally – and use it to further stoke its plants.
Here’s how: Carbon attracts and holds ions, which is why charcoal filters are used to purify things like water, alcohol and air. Deployed in soil, it sequesters nitrates, making the favored fuel of plants easily available – and keeping it from flowing away in runoff, as does a whopping 80 percent of nitrates in typical fields, causing a host of other problems like algal blooms, groundwater contamination and ocean dead zones.
In other words, the area’s ag waste can find a better fate than mere mulching or composting or burning for electricity.And Viridis can go beyond its own zero-impact farm system by helping traditional ag soften its impacts and up its outputs: What biochar Parr doesn’t use in his media beds he can sell to local farmers. Local soils will need less fertilizer, hold groundwater better and host more microbial life. From a business perspective, he gets paid from a waste stream. The power of closed loops and interconnectivity nets a win win, unless you’re a chemical fertilizer salesman.
“I’ve never come across a concept where nobody loses,” Parr says. “Eventually only big ag loses. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a victory for me.”
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When you set up a healthy aquaponics system, or arrange a functional compost bin, nature’s helpers come to you – zooplankton appear, worms and other digesters migrate over.
“They’re going to find their way in,” Parr says.
Same deal with Viridis and teachers, apparently: Parr estimates a dozen influential educators have approached him about floating school gardens.
“I figure if you are open and sharing and good-hearted, you’ll attract similar people,” he says.
Parr has already started lecturing at Soquel High, where the 1,500-square-foot greenhouse system will add fish once the he judges the water’s pH levels stable and, by April 1, fill 50 CSA subscriptions weekly with a mix of lettuces, sorrel, watercress, chard, choy, kale, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, strawberries, carrots, radishes and beets. Science classes, the Future Farmers of America and horticulture – even business classes – will all participate.
Next is San Lorenzo Valley High, then a few more area schools, then more across the region and the country. The ultimate goal: to reach 100,000 schools, which sounds endlessly complicated. But, like Parr’s greenhouse, he’s identified a simpler way to do it: He has completed a simple computer assisted design (CAD) drawing that requires little more than clear plastic paneling, locally available lumber, a community weekend build-out and the help of a handyman to string it together.
Parr furnishes those plans and some funding, the schools provide the space and the desire to learn. He and Hopkins are developing ways for schools to teach and deliver produce, while training supervisors in business and aquaculture. The outcomes are educational and nutritional.
“When I play this thing out, fast forward,” Parr says, “we involve local high schools, a dozen, then 100 to 1,000. Every local community that throws up a dozen or three dozen has the city’s food supply. I was amazed how much our farm produces. Do you realize the masses of food capable when you start thinking high-performance ag?”
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Chef Anthony Kresge is in the middle of the most manic Valentine’s Day rush between Santa Barbara and San Francisco. His landmark Shadowbrook Restaurant in Capitola is on the way to seating more than 2,000 tables for dinner last weekend when he pauses for a little aquaponic farming.
From a stainless steel bin with herbs and finishing greens, he pulls a small handful of micro onion sprouts. In the bottom of their small tub a quarter-inch of water covers their roots, just as it would at Viridis in their floating gardens. The onion is sold and kept “live root.” That way it can be harvested to order.
Kresge snips the greens and nestles them into an artful arrangement of mashed potatoes and seared scallops.
“It’s a fresh garden essence that makes the dish pop,” he says, adding, “I’m conscious of local and fresh, and conscious of helping the environment. As a chef, it’s part of my responsibility.”
He has also purchased butterleaf and amaranth from Viridis and is eager for his own specific rack with a custom selection of produce.
He’s not alone in his affections. Terra Fresca Catering has used the butterleaf as food and as bouquets at UC Santa Cruz events. Crow’s Nest and Johnny’s on the Santa Cruz pier are buyers. Just-hired sales director Stan Hughes can’t keep up with all the meetings in San Francisco restaurants. Santa Cruz’s hip Solaire Restaurant & Bar in the Paradox Hotel carries it, where Exec Chef Ross McKee says it’s “a beautiful product” for the price, adding, “the bok choy is terrific, so full of moisture you could eat it and never have to hydrate.”
When Eileen Chiarello, wife of Michelin-starred Pebble Beach Food & Wine celebrity chef Michael Chiarello, discovered Hopkins at EcoFarm, she quickly recruited Viridis to serve as a foundation startup on a bold new crowd-sourcing platform they’re calling BarnRaiser. Launching this Earth Day, April 22, it’s a Kickstarter for innovative creators “recasting food systems.”
“The mission is to help get funding and expose the stories of innovators like Viridis Aquaponics,” Chiarello says, “who are remaking our food systems in cleaner and more sustainable ways. It is by our collective support of these change agents that amazing new models will emerge and we will reshape how we farm and eat for the positive.”
And even a certain governmental space program – whose name can’t be linked to Viridis just yet – has scientists setting up an experiment to test aquaponics’ ability to sustain life off planet.
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Hopkins and Parr say they haven’t published their address because too many people were already arriving to check out the biggest aquaponics farm they could find. Interns have pursued them like pilgrims until allowed to work for free. Everyone loves all the talk of cycles and efficient food producing and natural systems and school gardens, and that Hopkins is initiating talks with international NGOs to seed aquaponics models at regional resource centers the world over. (“This is Viridis I,” he says. “Viridis II might be in Bali.”)
So they won’t love what Jon Parr announces next.
“Everybody goes, ‘Aquaponics is going to save us! Why would anyone farm any differently?!’” he says. “But aquaponics isn’t going to save the world.”
He has a point. Wheat and rice feed the world, not beets and bok choy. Wheat and rice won’t be grown in a greenhouse anytime soon. The giddy throng rushing to take aquaponics to impoverished nations underestimates the research and data collection required, on top of the costs of the massive fish tanks. There are powerful big ag and fertilizer forces to fend off – as Hopkins admits, “This is disruptive technology to them.”
And, Parr adds, there’s no book on how to do it. Data points are needed.
But in that need there’s something powerful.
Parr, after all, just needed a garden. Hopkins and his wife needed healing. Soldier flies need to eat, fast. Fish need to poop. Plants need nitrates. Chefs need sustainable product. Humans need drought – and disaster-proof food. The planet needs better water and waste management. Aquaponics needs data points.
Viridis can seem advanced, even revolutionary, but more than anything, it’s simple, connecting existing needs with existing resources.
The schools can provide those data points. So can Viridis, which as this goes to press is processing its organic certification, which should go swimmingly since fish sicken with any unnatural inputs, making aquaponics far lighter on fertilizer than many organic farms. (They’re also installing a 40,000-gallon sturgeon tank.) Parr can continue to share everything he learns openly, through forums, schools, workshops and speaking engagements.
A moment later Parr asks to amend his thought. “Aquaponics won’t save the planet,” he says, “or replace the way farming is done. But it just might change the way the world works.”
“The deeper you go,” he adds, “the more connected it becomes. Instead of more problems, there are more solutions.”