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We are bringing organic food closer to families than ever before with our urban aquaponics farm.

Next Step on NPR

Hey everybody! We recently joined Beth Ruyak on Insight for a discussion about Next Step and what we're doing with this project. If you'd like to listen to our Q&A, go ahead and check it out here!

Brandon at Insight's Studio 11/4/13
Brandon at Insight's Studio 11/4/13

What is Aquaponics?

Aquaponics is a method of growing plants that uses fish waste as fertilizer. Building one of these ecosystems is a balancing act that requires a proper relationship between the fish, plants, and bacteria that make it possible. Once set up, this ecosystem will be self regulating and will only require the fish to be fed. The plants are automatically watered and get a constant supply of nutrients, while the fish get a regularly cleaned tank thanks to the plants.

How is this done? A basic aquaponics garden consists of a fish tank, a growbed, and a pump. The grow bed is filled with a growing medium, which can be gravel, puffed clay, or any other substance that won't be dissolved in the water when it passes through. The pump is placed in the fish tank to bring water to the plants in the growbed. Afterwards, the water flows back down to the fish. This can be modified in a variety of ways, but this is the most common for backyards and small-scale ecosystems.

Here's some cool facts about aquaponics that might surprise you.

  • Plants grow much faster in aquaponics than in hydroponics or soil growing. In university experiments, results showed that Okra (an herb) grew 18 times faster, and much larger, than in the soil.
  • Aquaponics uses 90% less water than conventional farming. Because the water is recirculated from the fish to the plants, none is ever wasted, with the exception of plant uptake and evaporation.
  • No soil is ever used. In fact, one of the many outputs of these ecosystems is fish fertilizer that you can use to replenish your deplete soil garden!
  • In addition to fish, plants, and fertilizer, these gardens are capable of producing natural gas, plant feed, and a bunch of other useful stuff. If well maintained, it can grow its own food and supply itself with energy!
  • It's organic. Because the plants are fed by fish, pesticides and chemicals can't be used in the water without the fish being harmed.
  • Aquaponics is completely scalable; you can build a desktop herb garden or a backyard mini-farm. All you need are fish, plants, and a pump (of any size).
  • Any plant can be grown in this environment, except for root crops like potatoes, beets, and carrots. This means you can grow exotic plants anywhere, regardless of soil requirements.

Our Project's Goal

Our first step is to build the world's first economically viable urban farm in Folsom, CA. We're taking a run-down, abandoned fire station and turning it into a thriving organic greenhouse. In the 4,000 square feet of usable space this building offers, we can grow as many plants as a 40 acre farm! This old fire station is the ideal structure and in a great location.

Former Firehouse
Former Firehouse

So, where is the money going? Well, we're expecting the costs to be roughly $5,000 for permits, $16,000 for aquaculture, and $12,000 for the hydroponics equipment. We've already lined up manufacturers and have raised $10,000 locally to run tests on our systems, some of which we still have leftover. We'll be using the remaining $4,000 (plus the extra money from Kickstarter) to cover the costs of property, fish, and seed starting equipment. If we go beyond our fundraising goal, we'll be able to integrate a waste management center and purchase more equipment. $35,000 is the bare minimum we need to start a small-scale farm; we'd love to start big if we can. We're ready to get this going, all we need now is your support!

What Makes it All Possible

We've spent the past 15 months designing and testing new aquaponics layouts, and just last month we were able to grow 100 strawberry and pepper plants in just a little over 2 square feet. This has been a long time in the making, so where did it all start?

Brandon's First Aquaponics Experiment
Brandon's First Aquaponics Experiment

This was where it all started: our first 'experimental' aquaponics garden. Here, we tested the growth rates of trees, bushes, herbs, and fruiting plants in an aquaponics environment with and without direct sunlight. In this picture, you can see cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, corn, basil, lemongrass, lemon verbena, peppers, and of course our two trees: lemon and orange. If you notice the corn hiding behind the lemon tree (on the left), here is a picture taken of it just 17 days later.

Corn Just Over Two Weeks Later
Corn Just Over Two Weeks Later

The variety of plants we're growing here is only a fraction of those that we've tested and will be growing on our farm! Because aquaponics is a controlled environment, we're able to grow anything that isn't harvested for its roots. Our plans include specially designed equipment for strawberries, lettuce, corn, peppers, artichoke, soybeans, cucumbers, squash, watermelons, a variety of herbs, and much more! We're going to have a large section dedicated to a "community garden" where anybody can bring in a seed and grow it from seed at our farm. We've even gotten our hands on some wild foreign plants that we've had a great time growing!

The Community

Folsom is a fantastic community for this farm. We've raised a lot of eyebrows here with our experiments, and everybody is excited to see the finished project. We've been drumming up support and so far the feedback is so much better than we could have every hoped for. Our idea is not to just bring local, organic produce to this city, but to make it available for everybody. Right now, healthy food comes with a price that too many people aren't able to afford. Because our farm is its own grocery store, we have no retail markup, and that means we're able to let our customers pay what they are able to for their food. That's the dream after all: local, organic food for everybody.

Rewards

Are you interested in starting a similar project of your own? We have some exciting rewards for this project that range from aquaponics guides to reusable grocery bags, and even some our own planters.

If you're ready to get going on an aquaponics system of your own, we have 3 options for you. You can get our guide, which comes complete with all of our test results and side-by-side comparisons of fish:plant ratios, different growing media, and much more. You'll learn everything you need to know to design and build a garden of your own! If you're not the DIY type, we've designed 6 gardens ranging from a desktop herb garden to a scaling backyard model that  can grow as many plants as you need. Finally, we're in the process of filming a video that will guide you step-by-step through the construction of several different types of aquaponics gardens.

We're also giving our supporters a variety of Next Step products, including a home-scale model of the planters we'll be using in our farm. If you're ready to get serious about aquaponics, we'll let you in our methods and show you how to grow 40+ plants per square foot in your backyard or patio.

Backyard version of our growing systems
Backyard version of our growing systems

Let's Start The Urban Farming Revolution!

With this model farm, we're going to be able to prove to the world that this idea is not just possible, but practical. It's time to make a change to local, organic food, and we hope you'll join us. We're not going to stop until every city has a farm of their own!

Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter

Unfortunately, fitting a 40 acre farm in an abandoned fire station comes with a few potential problems. We are up against a lot of regulations; permits, building modifications, and most of all parking. After looking into Folsom's regulations, we should be able to do everything we need to in order to finish this project. The most concerning issue for us is how long it will take to work with the right people that will ultimately lead to a successful venture. This includes state and city managers overseeing the construction phase. We're looking for the support of our community in standing behind us to make sure this doesn't become an issue.
Next, we will need to plan for a higher number of people than the parking lot can currently handle. Being a fire station, it was never intended for a busy farmer's market-style business. However, by modifying the garage, repainting the back parking spots, encouraging carpools, and working with surrounding business on parking, we will be able to get through this hassle. If not, we have planned to level and pave an area along the side of the building that is covered with bushes and dead grass (which for now we are hoping to use for display models!).
Although we face these issues, we are confident that we can work through them with your support and the backing of our wonderful community!

FAQ

  • We believe the best food is grown in the sun, and our model reflects this belief. The idea has always been to grow plants outside in full sun, where they will get more than enough direct sunlight (even with the high quantity per square foot) to grow and fruit. Once plants have fruited, they are brought inside where they will continue to receive ample sunlight from windows and indirect sunlight. Our experiments have found that even when placing 100 strawberry and pepper plants in 15 square inches, they were all able to fruit and most produced higher than average yields when compared to soil growing. We performed a side by side comparison to strawberry plants growing in 80% indirect sunlight from seedling to fruit, and they only showed minor differences in yield (around 1 less strawberry per plant every harvest). Our plants will get significantly more light on our urban farm in these experiments.

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  • Commercial aquaponics farms right now are not incredibly successful. There's many reasons for this. They are often built flat, not vertical, so they don't utilize space and are no more efficient in this respect than soil farming. Next, they are built outside cities because the land is cheaper, which is necessary when so much more is needed due to the flat construction. This also leads to the last reason, which is that they don't sell directly to people; most of these farms right now sell herbs or lettuce to restaurants. This, of course, does not include every farm and is more a broad generalization. However, we have been working towards a way to make this incredible idea practical. That's what this project's goal is: to make the world's first economically viable urban farm. With our one of a kind design, we can fit a ridiculous amount of plants in an unbelievably small area, and that's what sets us apart. This makes it possible to move our farm into cities and sell directly to consumers with no retail markup.

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    As a thanks for supporting our project, you'll get access to videos of our farm's construction and your name listed as a supporter on our organization's website.

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    Get the Next Step Guide to Aquaponics, the perfect introduction to aquaponics that will teach you everything you need to know to build a garden of your own.

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    Not a fan of DIY? Get a parts list and step by step guide to building an aquaponics garden. We've designed a few different systems just for you that can suit a variety of needs and spaces.

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    LOCAL ONLY Come pick up a produce basket at our first big event. We'll keep you posted on the project; feel free to stop by and watch your food grow!

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    Get our ebook, system designs, and a video tutorial that will guide you through the construction of your garden.

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    Show your support for sustainable living! You'll receive all previous rewards along with a Next Step bumper sticker that says "Live Sustainably, Buy Local" and bears the Next Step logo.

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    In addition to our eBooks and bumper sticker, you'll get a set of 4 reusable grocery bags made by Next Step. Show your support and help reduce waste every time you go shopping!

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    LOCAL ONLY Come tour the farm either during construction or finished and running. We'll walk you through all the details of how everything works.

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    You'll get your very own Next Step Planter set (5 tiers), which can grow up to 20 plants in just over a square foot! These can be used with soil or aquaponics. Custom guide and ebooks included.

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    Get the Next Step Kit (Rewards 1-6), and a personal Skype call from both Max and Brandon. We'd love to thank you for helping to fund our Kickstarter and will assist you through the construction of your aquaponics system.

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    Get all the rewards! This donation will get you the Next Step Kit (Rewards 1-6), a Next Step Planter set (5 tiers), and a personal skype call from Max and Brandon to thank you and help you through construction of your own garden.

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    Grow your garden with an extra set of Next Step Planters. You'll get all previous rewards, and an extra set of 5 tiers (10 total; capable of growing 40 plants).

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    Get serious about Aquaponics! This donation will include a total of 4 sets of Next Step Planters in addition to all other rewards. (Capable of growing 80 plants.)

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    Have your name listed as producer in our ebook and all Next Step videos, including our instructional youtube guides. If you are local, we will welcome you to the construction of our model store.

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Funding period

- (30 days)