Let it drip

Originally published in Healthy Living, October 2013 • Photos by Fred Lopez+Mary Ann DeSantis

Follow the intricate maze of pipes running through Maria Tracy’s Lake County greenhouse and you will find lush, organic produce at the end. Her soilless venture into aquaponics may be the agriculture of the future.

Step into Maria Tracy’s greenhouse and you will think you are inside a Claude Monet painting. Butterflies swirl through the early-morning light, making circles around the softly muted greens, reds, and purples of all kinds of plants. Unlike the stillness of a Monet canvas, however, Maria’s garden is punctuated by gurgling water and the splashing of fish in 500-gallon holding tanks.

Welcome to the world of aquaponics where technology meets beauty and the results are truly organic.

Maria's Garden_vertMaria’s six-acre Lady Lake farm Heather Oaks has been known for years as a U-Pick-Em place for blackberries, blueberries, and more recently, Muscadine grapes. In February 2012, she ventured into aquaponics, a system that combines conventional hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) with aquaculture (raising of aquatic fish) in a symbiotic environment. Maria currently has 300 tilapia and 150 catfish in her aquaponics system.

“I don’t know what triggered my interest in this,” she says with a laugh. “I knew nothing about fish.”

In all seriousness, she recalls visiting a pool pump store with her sons who own and operate a pool service business. The store’s owner, who knew Maria owned a farm and was into growing a variety of produce, showed her an aquaponics kit system he had set up behind the store.

She didn’t buy the kit, but with the help of her husband, Bob, and her sons, she soon had an elaborate maze of pipes and tanks near the end of a long driveway leading into Heather Oaks, the farm she’s owned since 1989.

“We set it up and literally stood at one end waiting for the first drip of water,” she remembers. Within a few months, she was successfully growing lettuce, Swiss chard, tomatoes, broccoli, kale, rhubarb, and a variety of herbs in what looks like waterbeds for plants.

“I don’t want to worry about what I put in my mouth,” says Maria about why she delved into aquaponics. “You know what you are eating. It’s not tainted by pollutants or chemicals.”

Maria’s longtime customer and neighbor Jean Robinson says the quality difference between produce from a grocery and Maria’s aquaponics system is huge. “After eating Maria’s lettuce and Swiss chard, I couldn’t eat the grocery store varieties,” she says. “They had a metallic taste that you don’t get in Maria’s.”

Maria’s aquaponics system is a labyrinth of pipes that circulates water from the fish tanks into gravel beds where it is filtered. Maria adds natural and beneficial bacteria, similar to the kind found in yogurt, to break down the toxic ammonia in the fish waste. The waste becomes nitrite and then nitrogen, key nutrients for plant development. The filtered, nutrient-enriched water is pumped into long, rectangular growing beds filled with whatever is in season and whatever Maria wants to grow. Eventually, the water flows from the growing beds back into the fish tanks and the process begins again.Aquaponics at Heather Oaks Farm. Photos by Fred Lopez

“The temperature makes a difference as to what will grow, and the heat is challenging,” explains Maria. “Cooler temperatures in the fall are better than the heat of the summer, and the aquaponics plants will be at their peak after the first of the year.”

Keeping the system in balance is important. If there are too many effluents, the water can become toxic to the fish; if there is not enough, the plants suffer. And only organic nutrients will do — anything else will hurt the fish.

“If the fish are doing well, the produce is doing well,” explains Maria, who has an aquaculture license. “It’s a checks and balances system.”

The State of Florida checks her operation once a year to make sure everything is clean and running properly. And because she does have a state aquaculture license, she can sell fish as long as they are whole and on ice.

A “Ponics” Primer

The Greek word ponos means to work and usually refers to laboring in agriculture. Hence, ponics is the root word for many types of soilless growing adventures. Here is a look at the most popular:

Aeroponics – the process of growing plants in air or mist without the use of soil or a growing medium. Plants are usually grown in vertical towers and pumps are used to push the nutrient solutions up to the plants. An aeroponics gardening club recently formed in The Villages. Information is available from Sharon Starke at 352.259.8021.

Aquaponics –  a sustainable and symbiotic food production system that combines aquaculture (the raising of aquatic animals such as fish, snails, or prawns) with hydroponics (a method of cultivating plants in water).

Hydroponics –  a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions in water without soil. Almost any terrestrial plant can grow hydroponically. Not all hydroponic systems are organic. The method has been around since the 18th century when researchers discovered that plants absorb essential mineral nutrients as inorganic ions in water.

Creating an aquaponics system isn’t the first thing that Maria has jumped into feet first. Five years ago, she began growing Arbequina olive trees and is getting her first harvest this year, enough she says to make boutique olive oil. Scattered around her property are a few apple trees and pomegranate trees — things that normally do not grow in Florida. In fact, her pomegranate trees are part of a research project for the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences to see if they may someday become a viable commercial crop in Florida.

“Maria just touches things and they grow,” says her friend Jean. “She’s a walking Farmer’s Almanac.”

aquaponics-02The petite and effervescent Maria comes by her green thumb naturally. Her father, Joe Stephany, was one of the first to grow the hybrid Delicious grapes in this area. Although she began her career as a law enforcement officer, Maria’s love of nature won out and an Iris-growing hobby became a business in 2001. Heather Oaks was the place to go for buying the colorful, showy flowers. Before long, she was growing and selling blueberries, blackberries, tomatoes, peaches, and even honey.

The aquaponics system at Heather Oaks Farm is in its infancy, and Maria hasn’t harvested enough from it to sell to markets. Nor has she had to because her customers coming in to pick blueberries or grapes see the gigantic heads of lettuce or healthy vegetables sprouting from the long-growing beds and ask to buy them immediately. She has also hosted a number of garden clubs that wanted to see the operation. However, she would really like to have schools visit.

“I’m very open to teaching children about this,” she says. “The more people involved the better. When I have a problem, I have no one to call. I would love to be able to bounce ideas around with others.”

Want to know more? Visit www.heatheroaksfarm.com

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