by Amber

Swapping Pigs for Aquaponic Farming

After 25 years the hogs are gone, and the aquaponics tanks are going in. Not that the pork business is belly up, Rob Davis, a second generation pig farmer in Lodi, Wisconsin made a fair living raising pigs. But life is all about changes, and his path to switching to naturally grown foods and aquaponic farming began a couple years ago when he was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer.

It was operable, but his chances of surviving the surgery weren’t good, and so he decided to take a different route to battling the disease. He chose a holistic diet combined with chemo. But this alone didn’t bring him to stop turning out 3,000 pigs a year. It just introduced him to a diet that was mainly fruits and vegetables grown without chemicals. And then he took his kids to Disney World where his son became intrigued with the aquaponic system. The 11-year-old asked him to look into doing this on the farm, and so Davis took a class at Nelson and Pade, because it couldn’t hurt to investigate what it was all about.

The courses at Nelson and Pade attract people from all over the world, but he didn’t know that until he arrived, he just happened to live only 40 miles away from one of the leaders in aquaponics. It amazed him to see people from places like Peru and Indonesia in the room, and 60-plus attendees at that in tiny Montello – with a population of less than 1500. Between what he learned that day, and his cancer being linked to the unhealthy foods available today – getting out of hog farming and into organic growing with aquaponics was a no-brainer.

So, he set to work modifying his hog barns to become fish tank houses. One was torn down completely to become the site of his new greenhouse. Since it would be 6 months before he’d have anything marketable from his new aquaponic venture, Rob planted a huge straw bale garden in front of his barns out by the road with organic vegetables, and put up a roadside stand. Growing food in 120 bales of straw in the middle of farm country tends to grab people’s attention, but that was the plan. Passers by don’t notice a traditional garden in his neighborhood – they’re like billboards on the highway, there’s crops and veggies patches everywhere.

But he’s not depending on his farm stand to sell all the food those straw bales are pumping out. Gearing up for the amount of produce the six 500 gallon tanks and 42′ x 102′ greenhouse will generate, Heads-N-Tails CSA shares are already underway. And a local restaurant is already on board for a supply of fresh locally grown ingredients too. The system can produce over 10,000 leafy green plants a year from floating rafts and media beds.

Davis will soon have his fish on-site, and plans to start harvesting from the aquaponics crops for winter CSA shares, which will also include fresh organic tilapia once the fish are ready for marketing. His new aquaponic farm appears to be the 7th to spring up in the state of Wisconsin, and he’s joined a growing group of conventional farmers who prefer to do something more profound than follow the status quo. His aim to grow the best and healthiest food that he can.

Nelson and Pade

It doesn’t matter if you want to dabble with aquaponic gardening in your backyard, or take the route that Rob has and go whole hog, they’ve got a course designed to fit your needs at Nelson and Pade. If you’re going to learn how to really succeed with this method of soilless growing, it pays to get instruction from the pros. Even if you build your own system, this is a wise move, because so many things can go wrong, including how you engineer your design. It can get real expensive in a jiffy if you have no clue about what you’re doing. And if you’ve set your sites on becoming an aquaponic farmer? Trial and error could end it all over night, which is why there’s a global attraction to these classes.

Rebecca Nelson and John Pade have been growing in closed systems since the 1980s. They started out in hydroponics, but were drawn to the research being done in aquaponics by not needing to use mined and manufactured nutrients. The team and their systems are renown worldwide in this industry. They are experienced in greenhouse design, system design, commercial scale growing, and business management. Their comprehensive courses offer you the knowledge needed to start and grow an aquaponics operation of any size.

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The garden played a starring role from spring through fall in the house Amber was raised in. She has decades of experience growing plants from seeds and cuttings in the plot and pots.