Virginia farm embraces aquaponics

By David Nicholson / Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. —Using fish to make fertilizer isn’t a new concept. But John Morris has modernized the process through a sophisticated farming operation called aquaponics.

Last February, Morris turned his eight-acre Isle of Wight, Va., spread into the Herb Aqua Farm.

Inside two large greenhouses, Morris raises tilapia fish in large tanks. The fish produce waste, and the wastewater is processed into a kind of liquid fertilizer. Part of the water is channeled into hydroponic beds inside the greenhouse and the rest is pumped outside to fertilize Morris’ in-ground crops.

The operation gives Morris two sources of income. By March, his first batch of tilapia will have grown large enough to sell.

And the crops he grows — lettuces, herbs and vegetables — can be marketed year-round.

“It’s the only farming method where you can produce both a protein product and a farming product,” Morris says.

Lisa Perry, director of economic development in Isle of Wight County, says Morris’ operation fits in with the county’s goals.

“It’s another form of agri-business, and it shows exactly how things are changing in that field,” she said.

Morris, 56, came to farming late in life. For 17 years he was a firefighter in Portsmouth, where he grew up. Later he operated a cabinet-making business. In 1999 he moved to Isle of Wight.

Intro to aquaponics

One day he picked up a Farmer’s Almanac and read an article about Rebecca Nelson and John Pade, co-owners of Nelson + Pade Inc., a leading aquaponics firm in Wisconsin. Nelson is the author of “Aquaponic Food Production” and editor of Aquaponics Journal, which was first published in 1997.

“In aquaponics, plants and fish grow together in one integrated system — without soil,” Nelson wrote in an article for the Agri-View website. “The result is a continuous supply of fresh, organic food that can be grown in minimal space —anywhere — with almost no impact on the environment.”

Before he started on his new path, Morris wrestled with the idea, saying, “I was very nervous … I fought it tooth and nail.”

However, he finally sold his cabinet-making shop and purchased a Nelson + Pade system.

“I believe this is my calling,” Morris said. “I didn’t want to wake up when I was 75 years old and wish I’d done something else.

“It was a big decision,” he says, “but you have to keep learning. That’s what keeps us young.”

Balancing business with the environment

Morris estimates he’s sunk a total of $175,000 into the business. “If it fails, it fails,” he says, but he’s optimistic. “I have a business mind and I’m methodical.”

He’s also passionate about “green” methods of farming that don’t require herbicides and pesticides. These products have polluted the Chesapeake Bay and killed off the earthworms and the healthy bacteria in the soil.

Two 21-by-96 foot covered bays hold a maze of steel tanks and pipes. At the far end sit large hydroponic beds waiting to be planted. Morris uses a wood furnace to heat the facility.

Using large grow lights suspended from the ceiling, Morris says, “It’s a year-round growing operation … I’ll have crops in January.”

Morris purchased his first batch of small tilapia called fingerlings back in August. The warm-water fish live in tanks heated to about 72 degrees. The wastewater is filtered through a clarifier that traps the solids. The nutrient-rich water is pumped into the beds.

In his hydroponic beds he’s growing basil, lettuce, Swiss chard, yellow pea tomatoes and radicchio. He wants to add kale because “everyone at the farmers’ market was asking for it — they juice it.”