Something fishy on the farm? Aquaponics has potential to revolutionize greenhouse industry

By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer


Fishing is the most popular recreational pastime for many in Alberta and Saskatchewan, but seldom has fishing looked anything like this.

Dr. Nick Savidov, Senior Research Scientist at Lethbridge College, has been studying the agricultural applications of aquaponics for the past 16 years. Which means essentially using fish waste to fertilize crops. He will be the first to admit he wasn’t exactly sold on the whole idea of aquaponics when he first got into it, but rather was seeking to settle a wager with a friend who championed it. He was betting it wouldn’t work efficiently.

“To be honest with you I was at first quite skeptical, but I was wrong,” says Savidov. “And then when I saw that it was working, I wanted to make it better.”

Savidov explains how the process works.

“It is an example of an integrated food production system. The way it works is the fish grow (in a tank) and it generates waste, both liquid and solid. Micro-organisms break down this waste and make it appropriate for plant nutrition. We circulate the effluent. The plants extract nutrients from the water, and also clean up the water quality; which then gets pumped back to the fish (tank). This is the only system in the world which can function indefinitely without changing the water.”

Savidov began his first fully functioning aquaponics lab at the Brooks research station and worked with industry partner Red Hat Co-op in Redcliff to perfect the system for greenhouse conditions.

“When I built our fourth generation system (in Brooks) we had almost 3,000 fish.  Then that system was shipped to our industry partner Red Hat Co-op in Redcliff and they got almost 5,000 fish. So it was quite big, and each fish was between one to two pounds. Now in Lethbridge we have two new systems planned. The college received the largest grant ever awarded to a college in western Canada to do this research. We have not built them yet, but we are planning to as part of the project. We have 12 experimental aquaponics models right now in two locations. We have about 2,000 tilapia and trout.”

Savidov says the brilliance of the system is it harnesses the power of nature to deliver superior yield results, even better than other synthetic fertilizers currently on the market. During his time on the project, Savidov has grown 60 different varieties of crops and has received a great deal of interest from both domestic and international companies wishing to develop aquaponics capabilities in their own growing operations; especially in the greenhouse industry.

“The main purpose of the project is practical application,” insists Savidov. “We have studied both practical and economic feasibility. We have done safety studies. And we have developed a much better system now than we did in the early years. We did not invent aquaponics, but here in Canada we have improved it quite dramatically. It is now much more practical for the agriculture industry to use.”

Savidov says as the world’s population increases current models of food production become harder and harder to sustain. He believes aquaponics could be the solution to the problem.

“It is my strong belief that the future is these integrated food systems,” says Savidov. “You have to know plants, fish, micro-biology and waste treatment, but we don’t really have a choice. We need to recycle. We need to save water. We need to produce food more efficiently and take up less space to do that. It sounds like a utopia, but more and more companies are making this utopia a reality.”

Savidov believes the only limiting factor to developing a much more broad-based aquaponics industry is public perception.

“We have the technology but we need to explain to people the capabilities of this technology,” states Savidov.