Farm Facility in Calgary Combines Hydroponics and Aquaculture to Raise Leafy Greens and Fish
It looks like any non-descript industrial park warehouse, but the new Deepwater Farms facility in southeast Calgary produces fresh, local food daily using technology that some believe could be the future of agriculture.
This urban farm, located in a 10,000-square-foot building, is the city’s first commercial-scale aquaponics facility — meaning it combines hydroponics and aquaculture to raise both leafy greens and fish. Giant tanks house as many as 10,000 fish of varying ages and sizes (currently, Deepwater is raising sea bass), and the waste from the fish is then broken down into nitrates that are used to fertilize the racks upon racks of lettuce, herbs and other greens growing under giant LED lights.
The unconventional technology has given Deepwater the capacity to harvest about 450 kilograms a week of organic, locally grown produce. The company expects to triple that output once it is fully ramped up in late 2019. It can also harvest about 900 kilograms of fish a month — fresh, sustainable seafood that can go straight to the plates of landlocked Calgarians.
“I literally just stumbled across the concept of aquaponics one day on the internet,” said company founder Paul Shumlich. “It was the closed-loop aspect that really spoke to me, because we could take a waste product and turn it into a valuable input in another process. It was a symbiotic system between the fish and the plants, and it was organic.”
The 28-year-old Shumlich, who studied entrepreneurship at Mount Royal University, has been working on Deepwater Farms for close to five years, testing the technology in various garages and greenhouses, and building his customer base. Convinced there was a market for consistent, reliable produce that doesn’t need to be shipped from California or Mexico in the dead of winter, Shumlich started out by cold calling some of the city’s top restaurants.
He now has a 30-strong client list, and his produce appears in menu items at establishments including Model Milk, Ten Foot Henry, the Hyatt and the Teatro Group. Japanese restaurant Shokunin is the first restaurant to put Deepwater Farms’ fish on the menu, and the company, which now has 10 employees, expects more customers soon.
“In the city, we see the potential to grow 10 times our current size within the next three years,” Shumlich said.
While Deepwater is the largest farm of its type in commercial operation in Alberta, there is growing interest in aquaponics in the province. According to its website, Earthis Inc. is working on a design for a commercially viable vertical aquaponics greenhouse and already has a proof of concept up and running in Okotoks. And Current Prairie Fisherman Corp., which began farming tilapia and barramundi in Nobleford in 2008, recently built a large greenhouse to provide their restaurant clients with specialty vegetables as well, using fish waste as plant fertilizer.
Aquaponics is appealing from an environmental perspective and an economic perspective (plants grown through this type of system can grow three times as fast as conventionally grown produce), but it is more complex than other types of farming. Every part of the system must work in harmony and must be constantly monitored to ensure the health of both the plants and the fish. Still, Deepwater’s leaders say there is a future for aquaponics even in jurisdictions where indoor growing isn’t a necessity.
“Even though California and Florida have the weather to grow this stuff year-round, they still can’t control everything. They’re going to get rainy days, they’re going to get dry weather,” said acting president Reid Henuset. “If we can get our systems down to the point where we know how every little detail of it works, there’s no reason we couldn’t take it worldwide. Because, with this system, you can control everything.”
Deepwater has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for expansion.
Shumlich said he believes aquaponics technology could have applications in cannabis production, greenhouses of all types and even industrial agriculture through the production of natural fertilizers.
“Vine crops I don’t think it makes sense to grow indoors, you’re not going to grow Prairie wheat and barley indoors,” Shumlich said. “But I think for things that are being transported out of southern California, like leafy greens, it’s definitely the future. And I think in general, smart agriculture is the future of all food production.”