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Local business changing the world …

Thousands of commuters on Woodmen Road probably do not realize they are driving past a potentially world-changing research facility. Emerge Aquaponics is taking their experience as part of the local food movement to a global scale, direct from a nondescript greenhouse facility in Colorado, between Black Forest and Falcon.Aquaponics is the combination of growing fish and food plants in a symbiotic relationship. Fish eat, digest and deposit waste in the water that the plants then soak up as fertilizer and nutrients.ìEverything starts with this fish tank,î said Andrew Fisk, co-director of Emerge Aquaponics. ìFish provide the nutrients, and the plants effectively act as a biofilter cleaning the water. The waste is ammonia that breaks down into nitrogen that the plants suck up. By the time the water gets back to the fish tank, it’s pretty clean. The fish get clean water, the plants get the nitrogen-filled water, and the system constantly cycles.îAbout 600 tilapia provide enough nutrients to harvest between 1,200 and 1,600 heads of lettuce per week, depending on the season. As the fish grow and mature, they are replaced with fry bred (baby fish) on site, and the mature fish become a protein product (food) from the system. ìWe’re constantly raising them and putting them in the main tank as they get large enough,î Fisk said. ìWe eventually harvest and eat them ourselves or for events we have.îAquaponic systems allow growers to grow food in a small amount of space. The process is ideal for places with frequent droughts, poor soils or harsh climates; in other words, Colorado. ìWe can grow a thousand heads of lettuce, with only 250 to 400 gallons of water lost, or 90 percent less than anyone else,î said Josh Imhoff, co-director. ìA lot of the countries we go to don’t have any limitations on pesticides, and so the food and soils can be toxic sometimes and you won’t even know it. Growing this way, you know everything is organic, and you haven’t added anything to the system.îThe system begins with about 10,000 gallons of water. To comply with Colorado water law, the Emerge team paid to have purchased water trucked to the site. ìThe water flows through the whole system twice a day,î Fisk said. ìThe cool part of aquaponics is that you don’t have to flush the water as you do in hydroponic systems.îHydroponic systems are different because the nutrients must be added directly to the water. Once the water has been cycled through hydroponic systems, it must be drained and disposed of, which can be an issue for wastewater systems or community groundwater resources.Emerge Aquaponics’ greenhouse hums with activity during harvest and transplant day. ìAs we harvest mature plants from the rafts, we then transplant from the planting trays into the high density floating rafts and rotate the younger plants to the next area,î Fisk said.Mature heads of butterhead bibb lettuce are packaged into clamshell boxes to be sold at King Soopers’ locations throughout the front range. ìWe’ve been selling to Till Kitchen and Garden of the Gods Gourmet,î Fisk said. ìSeveral of the chefs have come out and love what we’re doing. Restaurants like to use it in their BLTs or lettuce wraps because of its big leaves.îEmerge tries to focus on selling produce within 50 to 100 miles of their operation to highlight the need for local food production. ìThe benefit of this is that I could harvest a head of lettuce and tonight at Garden of the Gods Gourmet it could be served,î Fisk said.ìWithin a few hours, it could be on someone’s plate, which is a huge advantage.ìWe like to see ourselves as partners with the soil-based local farm movement, other local greenhouses and also other aquaponics. Our hope and dream is to have the community here be able to be sustainable; so if there’s a shortage of food, our community can grow food.îThe team’s other dream is to bring the experience and knowledge they’re building at their Black Forest location to the rest of the world to create sustainable food resources in developing countries. ìI grew up traveling around the world, seeing people dying of starvation and being malnourished,î Imhoff said. ìI wanted to make a difference. We are looking at how we can create food security for the world.îImhoff and Fisk travel frequently throughout the world to help develop, build and maintain similar greenhouse systems in Asia, South America and Africa. However, they balance their global work with supporting their local community. ìWe’re flying to Swaziland in March to help an orphanage because they’re in drought,î Imhoff said. ìPeople are dying of starvation there, and we get to help them design and build something that is going to change their community. But we’re also doing things locally ñ- we helped Mountain Springs Church build their system, and they’re donating everything through their food pantry, mostly to people in the Falcon area.îBuilding a system and knowledge base that can be used in different environments has been a huge challenge. ìThis has not been easy at all,î Imhoff said. ìWe’ve had to fight to get to where we are. There were lots of days where we were ready to give up and throw in the towel and say we’re done.îAphids, mildew, strange little aquatic insects as well as floods and equipment problems have plagued the team as they learned to fine tune the system. ìMost greenhouses go out of business the first two years, and we’re going into our third year; and things are starting to work,î Imhoff said. ìBut I definitely understand why so many people quit before this.îMore than 2,500 people have visited or volunteered at Emerge. The experimental, educational and training aspects of the project have helped many nonprofit and for-profit organizations start their own aquaponic systems worldwide.ìIf people wanted to go on an overseas trip with us, they could; or, if they wanted to build one in their local community center or at their house, we’d love to help,î Imhoff said. ìSince Colorado is a food desert, we need to figure out how to grow our own food. Now that we have a model that we can reproduce, it’s just about the manpower to replicate it around the country and around the world.î

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