One of the biggest challenges to agriculture in the north is the long and cold winter season that puts a ‘freeze’ on all growing activities. Farm operators can store and sell hardy crops such as carrots and cabbage, but perishable products like fresh herbs and greens are traditionally only available in the spring and summer months. That is, of course, until now, when a new state of the art aquaponic system in Prince George is being put to the test.
Northern Bioponics Ltd. is the brainchild of German engineer Matthias Zapletal, who moved to Canada in 1999. Matthias has constructed an aquaponic facility, began its operations in May of this year, and is now yielding its first produce crops. Aquaponic systems, like hydroponics, cultivate plants in water, without soil. However, unlike hydroponics, aquaponic systems do not require synthetic fertilizers. Instead, living fish, which are also raised for food, provide all the nutrient needs for the plants. Biofilters convert the ammonia from fish effluent into nitrates that are readily absorbed by the plants. The plants then filter the water for re-use by the fish. The Northern Bioponics system is a closed system that requires as little a 200L of water input a week to maintain water levels. It is heated by 800 sq. ft. of solar panels and a wood-fired boiler in a well-designed greenhouse. Aquaponic systems such as this are one of the world’s most sustainable methods of producing food.
The Northern Bioponics system is certainly the first of its kind in the north. It currently holds 1000 head of tilapia, a tasty and hardy freshwater fish that is resistant to temperature fluctuations. At its peak, the system will hold 2500 fish and produce approximately 700 heads of lettuce a week in the 1100 sq ft. growing space. While it takes time to build the system to its full capacity, as a balance of fish, nitrates and plants must always be in place, Matthias is already harvesting and selling some produce, and the fish will be ready to sell in January 2012 once they reach full size.
Operating on the leading edge of innovation, Northern Bioponics has had several challenges. Matthias would have organic certification, but the Certified Organic Associations of BC do not yet have a classification for soilless systems of agriculture, and it may
take them several years to create one. Furthermore, commercial fish food is traditionally geared towards the aquaculture industry, and thus has a different nutrient profile than what is best for an aquaponic system. Matthias has been experimenting with adding ingredients such as kelp to the fish food to provide more enzymes.
As a business operator, Matthias chose to locate in Prince George because of the availability of space and market for local production. He felt that as a start-up operation, he would not be able to compete with the large existing greenhouses in the Okanagan and Fraser Valley. He admits that farming will never make him rich, but he hopes to at least make a living.
The possibility of having sustainably grown fresh salad greens, herbs and fish available locally through the winter is certainly an exciting one. Matthias hopes to make connections with many local restaurants and larger buyers in the region to make use of his 700 heads of lettuce per week capacity. You can also find him at the Prince George Farmers Market this October selling produce and sharing the excitement of his new venture.