Environmentally friendly farming

Aquaponics By Katie Demeria

WINCHESTER — Youth participating in TEENS Inc. have built the largest aquaponics system in Northern Virginia, according COO and Program Director Joe Fromme.

Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. It includes fish while raising plants in water to create a mini ecosystem.

The 3,000-square-foot greenhouse in which TEENS participants raise their fish and plants houses everything from cilantro to pac choi lettuce, along with coy and tilapia.

Long, 18-by-30-foot raft systems are filled with water, with plants growing out of the slotted tops. According to Fromme, no chemicals are used on the produce, and the water is constantly recycled — a pump cycles the water at the bottom of the raft back to the top, creating a closed system so no water is ever wasted.

Fromme learned about aquaponics when one of the first TEENS groups visited West Virginia University’s experimental system, run by volunteer Matt Ferrell.

Ferrell was able to help TEENS Inc. put together its aquaponics system, and the participants learned from him, as well, helping to build the systems and learning important science, technology, engineering and math skills.

And Ferrell trusts in the raft system so much that he drank the water himself without hesitation — it was crystal clear.

“It’s a very healthy way to eat,” Fromme pointed out. “Everything grown here is clean, green and has never been gassed.”

Alongside the raft system are large media-based aquaponic systems, which support much larger, individual plants.

Goldfish swim in the tank of water beneath the plant, and that water is filtered up to the plant. In the system, solid waste from the fish is filtered out, capturing only ammonia, which is then converted into ammonia nitrate through the bacteria living in media rocks, nourishing the plant.

“It’s like a mini Earth,” Fromme said.

According to Fromme, aquaponics is likely to be the next level in gardening. It is environmentally friendly, creating very little waste, and is an excellent way through which farmers can protect watersheds.

“You never flush the system, only add more water to it,” Fromme said. “It’s a circle.”

Fromme is able to sell some media-based aquaponic systems. To find out more, contact Fromme at info@teensincva.org or visit www.teensincva.org.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com