Farming fish and veggies in the city: Hamilton pair launches aquaponics farm
In a Stoney Creek neighbourhood among the auto shops and packaging plants is an unconventional farm raising little fish and baby lettuce plants.
Behind a glass door beaded with condensation, the new business is taking a sustainable approach to farming fish and growing produce.
Tim Alford, along with high school friend Al Mastroianni, operate A&M Aquaponics. It farms tilapia and uses the fish waste to fertilize the various plants.
"There has never been a 12-month organic procedure before in Canada," said Alford, describing the eco-friendly approach the company has taken with its urban farm.
Aquaponics is a system that combines aquaculture — raising of aquatic animals — and hydroponics — raising plants in water.
"It's an enclosed ecosystem," Mastroianni said. "When fish breathe, they exhale ammonia and that goes through a filter and breaks down into nutrients for the plants."
How it works
The two 25-year-olds from Hamilton are taking a chance, dedicating their time and money to a unique business they strongly believe in.
In the system Mastroianni and Alford built, a school of fish live in a large tub. Water flows through a PVC pipe into a tank that's designed to pull the fish waste through to a filter.
The water passes through a tub of bioballs, small plastic ball for bacteria to colonize on. The filtered water then moves through another pipe to feed and fertilize the plants.
The system also keeps the water constantly clean for the fish.
At full capacity, Alford estimates they can produce 350 to 450 pounds of fish per week, as well as 200 to 300 heads of lettuce or other leafy greens per day.
"With lights running 24/7, the plants can have what they need all the time," Mastroianni said. "They'll grow faster than being in a greenhouse or outside in a traditional farm."
Alford and Mastroianni's business partnership started with a message on Facebook.
"Al originally sent me a link for a farm [for sale] and the message said, 'Buy me this,'" said Alford.
Mastroianni's interest in aquaponics spawned from the "one thing I took from my education" while in undergraduate economics classes at McMaster University.
"In North America, we spend about 15 per cent of our income on food. Countries in Europe are spending upwards to 30 per cent and in Asia about 40 to 50 per cent," he said. "As their incomes catch up, our food prices will drive up."
Economic benefits aside, Mastroianni has no doubt their operation will take off. His confidence comes from a former part-time job at Walmart.
"Working in the produce department, people were looking for locally-grown stuff and we just didn't have it," Mastroianni said. "The market is there for it."
Since he approached Alford to be his business partner, the farm has been a labour of love for both. Alford and Mastroianni are investors number one and two in A&M Aquaponics, along with a third anonymous investor.
A&M to start sales in May
The pair built the set-up from the ground up. Along with help from Mastroianni's father and brother, they constructed the floor-to-ceiling structure with tubs, tubes and filters with their own hands.
"Tim helped," Mastroianni said with a laugh, their long friendship evident.
The two aren't making any money yet — they just moved into their current space in December and turned on the system about two weeks ago. But A&M Aquaponics is set to start selling its harvest at several farmers' markets starting next month, including Ottawa Street, Ancaster and Dundas. Their stand will be filled with a variety of lettuces, spinach, kale and arugula to start, and tilapia will be available in the fall.
Alford said everything they've accomplished will start sinking in once their first fish crop is ready to be sold, but Mastroianni is already amazed by what the pair has accomplished.
"When I first started researching aquaponics, I thought I'd do it on a small scale just growing for myself in the basement," he said. "But the fact I can do this for a living is amazing."