Homegrown success

HCN student essay contest runner-up.


Grey‐bellied tilapia swim in the shadow of flushed tomatoes warmed by an October sun. Lettuce leaves bob up and down, their roots damp and clotted. For many, it seems like a pastoral paradise, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find this Longmont, Colo. garden is actually a human‐engineered, recirculating, indoor ecosystem.

Sylvia Bernstein can still recall the first time she encountered aquaponics — the integration of hydroponics with aquaculture to grow vegetables and farm fresh fish simultaneously.

The 51‐year‐old Modesto, Calif. native had come across the term while overseeing plant technology at AeroGrow International, a Colorado company invested in indoor gardening systems; however, Bernstein was skeptical of its promises.

“I honestly didn’t think it would work — aquaponics just seemed way too easy,” she says of the system that circulates fish waste to fertilize plants, which in turn filter clean water back to the fish.

But a co‐worker already entrenched in the unique gardening movement insisted she check out his basement setup. It was a rainy Saturday in Boulder, Colo. when Bernstein and her then‐14‐year‐old son finally took him up on his offer.  “I was amazed — that totally changed my life,” she says. “I spent the next six months trying to figure out how I was going to get involved in aquaponics.”

Bernstein, a graduate of agricultural economics, now works as one of the nation’s leaders in the industry. Along with her husband, Alan, she owns and operates The Aquaponic Source, a one‐stop online shop for home aquaponic needs. In 2011, Bernstein founded The Aquaponics Association with Florida‐based commercial farmer Gina Cavaliero to promote the benefits of aquaponic food.

Indeed, aquaponics is quickly emerging as the latest trend on the sustainability scene, finding its way into both residential markets and large-scale commercial farms. Even NASA is exploring new ways to incorporate aquaponics into its missions.

“For me, it really starts with water,” Bernstein says of the technology’s green promises. “This is a really water‐wise way to grow plants — not only are you pulling less water out of the Earth’s systems, you’re also not putting fertilizer‐laden water back in.”

Instead, aquaponic systems use electric pumps to move water from the rearing basin, where the fish are kept, to the grow beds. Once the tank is filled, Bernstein explains, there’s no need to discharge the water, unlike with aquaculture where water becomes polluted. Aquaponics, too, can help tackle the issue of overfishing.

“As the world’s demand for fish increases, as it has and as it will continue to, we’re going to need to be farming fish more and more,” she says. “And the ability to harvest those fish out of the ocean becomes decreasingly less appealing from an environmental standpoint — this is a way for us to sustainably grow fish on land.”

While aquaponics has long been popular in warmer climates, like Florida and Australia, where temperatures guarantee a successful crop, an interesting trend is emerging in the West. Following Florida and Texas, aquaponics has proven to be most popular in Colorado and California. “Colorado is kind of an outlier,” Bernstein observes. “When you look at our climate, why on earth would we be interested in these year‐round gardening systems?”

In the end, she chalks it up to the strong focus on sustainable living present throughout Boulder County, as well as a large number of survivalists in the Centennial State. “They’re very interested in aquaponics as a means for self‐sustaining food and getting off the grid,” she points out.

Indeed, aquaponics has proven so popular that, in October, the Bernsteins put up the money to open their first retail location in Longmont. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the Bernsteins mill around their new facility, explaining the ropes to potential customers.

Alan, who was “drafted out of retirement” by his wife several years ago, recommends a “cool ice bath” as the least grisly method for harvesting homegrown fish. With seven grow beds in a greenhouse at their north Boulder home sprouting peppers, tomatoes, herbs and lettuce, the Bernsteins frequently prepare fresh salads and fish fillets.

“Any effort to grow and understand your own food is important,” Sylvia emphasizes. “There’s a lot of concern out there, and rightfully so, about the quality of our food, and the security of our food. We, as humans, gain a lot from being closer to our food sources.”

Gloria Dickie is a master's student studying environmental journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. A native of Ontario, Canada, she moved to the West due to a lifelong love for the Rocky Mountains.

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