A Washougal-area farm in the Columbia River Gorge has taken the soil out of the process and added in fish.
Wind River Produce owner Carl Hopple calls it “the pure food revolution,” but it’s more commonly known as aquaponics, a combination of aquaculture, or farming fish, and hydroponics, which grows plants in water instead of soil.
Aquaponics takes the best of both worlds, growing fish and plants in a system in which fish waste can nourish the plants and the plants can filter the water, keeping the fish healthy.
Here’s how it works: The fish produce waste, which contains ammonia. Microorganisms convert the ammonia to nitrites, and then to nitrates for the plants. The plants absorb the nitrates and return aerated water to the fish.
The farming method is more sustainable than traditional practices, using 10 percent of the water required in conventional agriculture and operating without a need for chemicals or pesticides.
Hopple, a residential and commercial developer with Fosburg Enterprises LLC, of Vancouver, grows lettuce, tomatoes and peppers with Aaron Imhof, the “master builder” of Wind River Produce, Jennifer McMillan, the greenhouse manager and Annie Stanton, a Clark College student who volunteers at the Columbia River Gorge-area farm.
Hopple discovered aquaponics in 2013, when he was working on a greenhouse project for one of his development company customers.
He met Imhof and Imhof’s wife, Kate Wildrick, owners of Ingenuity Innovation Center, in St. Helens, Oregon, during a greenhouse tour.
“They had a greenhouse with one of Murray Hallam’s backyard aquaponics systems in it, and had lemons growing in the early spring,” Hopple said. “I was fascinated with the system, and I enjoyed meeting them so (I) set up a time to come back and tour the facility and get to know them better. I also wanted to know more about this new way of farming that I had never heard of.”
Hallam, an aquaponics expert from Brisbane, Australia, offers in-person workshops and seminars, as well as an online aquaponics design course.
Hopple started Wind River Produce in 2017, and has since branched out, partnering with regional food groups and trying to bring the aquaponics message to the Pacific Northwest.
Wildrick, who provides community outreach services for Wind River Produce, said the Ingenuity Innovation Center is partnering with the Oregon Food Bank and developing an aquaponics training program for veterans.
“We also travel internationally to build aquaponic farms for vulnerable children and families in an effort to prevent sex trafficking,” Wildrick said. “We partner with the Fly Fishing Collaborative.”
The Ingenuity Innovation Center will be working in partnership with Wind River Produce to provide community education and outreach with sustainable projects.
‘It is possible to change the way we produce our food’
Hopple said anyone can participate in the aquaponics industry, whether they are building a small backyard system to feed their family, or building a 50-acre facility to feed the city.
“It is possible to change the way we produce our food, and Wind River Produce can teach them how,” Hopple said. “Food produced in an aquaponics system is higher in nutrition and more efficient with the resources we have.”
The Washougal farm owner wants to take his message far and wide to create a movement.
“By educating the public on the facts, we can create a pure food revolution,” Hopple said. “This, in turn, will help to make healthy choices available to all.”
Hopple estimates the cost for a 10-by-12 foot aquaponics system, with a greenhouse, training and support to run it, would be $5,000 to $6,000.
“That is a good supplemental food source for a family of four,” he said.
Hopple sells lettuce and other vegetables at the Camas Farmer’s Market, from 3 to 7 p.m., Wednesdays, through Oct. 3, in front of the Camas Public Library, 625 N.E. Fourth Ave.