Local veteran starts alternative farming operation
April 16, 2017
MCALESTER, Okla. (AP) — A local veteran is uprooting traditional farming methods in favor of pursuing aquaponics agriculture.
Daniel Wilson retired from the Army after nearly eight years of service and moved back to the family farm in Stuart. Upon arrival, Wilson decided to experiment with a different kind of farming. His parents had sold all their cattle but Wilson wasn't interested in the beef business.
He had aquaponics on his mind.
Aquaponics, according to the dictionary, is a system of growing plants in the water that has been used to cultivate aquatic organisms. Wilson circulates water from tanks full of fish to his plants and back to the fish tanks. During that process, valuable fish waste turns to nitrogen and other nutrients, nourishing the plants, and the plants in turn serve as a filter for the water returning to the fish.
"This type of farming has been around for thousands of years... the Aztecs did it 2,000 years ago," Wilson told the McAlester News-Capital (http://bit.ly/2obpNVW ). "They built floating rafts and planted seeds on the (rafts on) lakes."
Technology has improved since then and Wilson decided to give modern aquaponics agriculture a shot.
"I thought, 'I can do this,'" Wilson said.
So Wilson worked with Symbiotic Aquaponic in Talihina to establish a 1,040-square foot aquaponic system in a greenhouse at the farm last year. Now you'll find tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, bok choy, radishes, okra and about 10 different kinds of lettuces and cabbage growing in blue tubs, called grow beds, throughout the greenhouse.
"It took us less than 14 days to install," Wilson said. "(I can grow) about everything you can imagine in aquaponics. The only thing I can't do real well is onions."
Wilson, a certified master gardener in Pittsburg County, even experimented with a fig tree, he said. It grew so much he transplanted it outside and expects it to produce fruit this fall. The grow beds hold clay pebbles and fill with water to provide the nutrients to the plants. The clay is an Oklahoma red clay that is superheated in order to expand the material before using in the grow beds, Wilson said. Water circulates from the fish tanks, leaving behind valuable nutrients.
"The water will fill up and come to about two inches from the top and then I will siphon it all out and leave only about an inch (in the grow bed) and then fill back up," Wilson said.
Using recycled water circulated through the system significantly reduces the total water use compared to traditional farming methods.
"It uses about 10 percent of the water typical gardening uses," Wilson said. "This system takes about 5,000 gallons of water to run."
"I add about 150 to 200 gallons of water a week to run it," Wilson added. "That's due to evaporation and how much the plants use."
The fish in the system are currently koi, but Wilson hopes that will someday be changed to tilapia. That will provide another means of produce from the system as he hopes to be able to sell the tilapia to consumers.
Wilson currently sells his produce at the McAlester farmers market and to local consumers. As his system develops, he plans to sell to local restaurants and said he's been in discussions with two in the area already. Wilson is just waiting for the aquaponics system to be up to their standards, he said. It takes time for the grow beds to retain enough nutrients from the fish waste to produce maximum quality produce.
In addition to the water conservation, the possibility of consuming locally-grown produce year round is exciting to Wilson.
"Most of the produce grown around here comes from out of state," Wilson said. "Nearly all of (Oklahoma's) farming land is wheat production, soy or something along those lines, so our vegetables that we buy at the store are shipped in from out of state."
Wilson's produce is also naturally organic.
"In this system you cannot use synthetic fertilizers because it will upset the system," Wilson said. "Pesticides and herbicides kill your fresh or your beneficial bacteria. You have to be organic."
Herbicides and pesticides can hurt the fish as well, Wilson added. You basically have to be organic to run this system.
Moving forward, Wilson hopes to expand his production. "My five-year long-term is to have a minimum of three aquaponics greenhouses as well as soil gardening," Wilson said. "Produce isn't the only thing I'm doing. Bedding plants are turning into a pretty good business as well."
For those interested in seeing his production process, Wilson says he is working on that too.
"We're hoping to have this as an agriculture tourism farm so people can come out and tour the farm and see how it works," Wilson said.
Information from: McAlester News-Capital, http://www.mcalesternews.com