• Publishers' Note Summer 2013

    Publishers' Note Summer 2013

    According to a 2009 report prepared by the Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Management Cooperative, the earliest published account of fish in Lake Champlain was by Zadock Thompson in his Natural History of Vermont (1853). In his report, Thompson described 48 different species of fish, and historically, the commercial fisheries on the lake targeted whitefish, walleye, yellow perch, lake sturgeon, eel, and lake trout.

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  • Set the Table with Garlic Scapes

    Set the Table with Garlic Scapes

    Garlic scapes are one of those totally edible and delicious things that most people don’t even know exist. Every spring, hardneck varieties of garlic (having overwintered but not ready to harvest until July) send up a curlycue stem with a bulbil up top. The bulbil is sort of a mini bulb that can grow new garlic in a couple years or just be eaten like garlic right now.

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  • A Fly in the Ointment

    A Fly in the Ointment

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  • How to Love a Lease—Vermont landowners

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  • How to Love a Lease—Young farmers

    How to Love a Lease—Young farmers

    At the end of a mostly impassable class 4 road in Calais lies the brick farmhouse of Fair Food Farm. In some ways it seems remote, but as Emily Curtis-Murphy sees it, “It’s a great place to farm.” Before she delves into her experience of farming on leased land, Emily takes me on a brief tour. She and her family rent their house from one landlord and, two miles away, rent land owned by a different landlord for the rest of Fair Food’s operation.

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  • In the Tank

    In the Tank

    On a sunny spring day earlier this year, steam was pouring out of sugarhouses, calves and lambs and kids were being born, and greenhouses were teeming with plant starts. And on Curtis Sjolander’s Mountain Foot Farm in Wheelock, in the barn just behind his house, hundreds of brown trout were swimming in their large tanks, slowly growing in cold waters.

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  • Hooked on Aquaponics

    Hooked on Aquaponics

    Aquaponics is gaining traction on a larger scale as an alternative to traditional methods of produce and fish farming. In developing countries with a limited water supply, people like aquaponics guru Travis Hughey are introducing the concept as a way for individuals to grow their own food while making the most of their limited resources.

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  • Ocean to Mountains

    Ocean to Mountains

    Ethan Wood cannot wait to show you how his scallops twitch. “You see that move?” he asks, breathless. “You see that? These things are alive!” We’re standing in the back of a refrigerated truck in Lebanon, New Hampshire. The scallops, sitting in a plastic box atop a bed of ice, do in fact wriggle when Ethan gives them a little prod. Less than 10 hours ago, the mollusks were still in the waters of Nantucket Bay.

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  • Students Harvest the Future  at Local Colleges

    Students Harvest the Future at Local Colleges

    The agriculture renaissance is upon us. With the growing demand for agriculture graduates, Vermont colleges are leading the way with a variety of agriculture and food-related degrees aimed at preparing students for one of the fastest growing green job fields in the United States. Organic farming, sustainable food systems, nutrition, and animal health are taking center stage during this unique era when environmental and sustainable issues span the globe.

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  • Farmers Kitchen—Les poulets, s’il vous plaît

    Farmers Kitchen—Les poulets, s’il vous plaît

    When we’re selling at a local farmers’ market or get a call ordering a CSA share, we’re often asked, “What is a French chicken?” I, or my wife Rocio, will often say, “Well, it’s a chicken that speaks French and has a little pointy, black mustache,” but actually we’re referring to our certified organic Red Bro chickens. These delicious birds originated from France, where they are referred to as poulet rouge (red chicken) and are found under the label “Rouge” (Red Label).

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  • Last Morsel—The Family Car as Solar Dehydrator

    Last Morsel—The Family Car as Solar Dehydrator

    All summer long, I feast like a queen from the garden, but never lose sight that fall is coming, and we’ll still want to eat. My husband and I therefore freeze, ferment, can, and dehydrate food for winter, and since one of our goals is to avoid the use of fossil fuels to prepare or store our food, we often favor dehydrating.

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Hooked on Aquaponics

A sustainable way of raising plants and fish

lettuce growing aquaponically
lettuce growing aquaponically

Written By

Alexandra Ossola

Written on

July 03 , 2013

For visitors to the home of Mark and Susie Crowther, the blue plastic barrels can be the elephant in the room.

What are those barrels doing in a room of their own, people wonder, and why do they keep emitting sounds of rushing water?

They’re aquaponics systems—closed, symbiotic systems in which the Crowthers can efficiently raise plants for their consumption and fish, using recycled materials and water.

Aquaponics is gaining traction on a larger scale as an alternative to traditional methods of produce and fish farming. In developing countries with a limited water supply, people like aquaponics guru Travis Hughey are introducing the concept as a way for individuals to grow their own food while making the most of their limited resources.

Thanks to some research, seeds, water, fish, and a bit of creativity, Mark Crowther has become an avid aquaponics hobbyist. He also worked with the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center (BEEC) in West Brattleboro to host two workshops in May.

Aquaponics has been used for centuries, as far back as the Aztec empire, when engineers from Tenochtitlan created floating islands of reeds on which they planted seeds for fruits and vegetables.

These days, though, the systems can be as large as lakes or portable and small enough to fit on a tabletop indoors.

To Crowther, the key to creating these systems is to tailor them to the space available; each one of his systems is built from several 55-gallon blue plastic barrels, one sitting cylindrically on the floor as a tank for the fish, the other half-barrel placed perpendicular on top of the other, as a larger plant bed.

There’s a large hole in the bottom barrel above the waterline so that he can access the fish (in Crowther’s system these are golden shiner minnows, “because they were available at the local bait shop,” he said).

The top half-barrel is full of expanded shale, which is Crowther’s “grow bed media” into which the seeds were planted.

This grow bed media is essential in any aquaponic system because it houses those bacteria that enable the plants to absorb the nitrogen. He chose the shale because it’s lightweight, porous, and local.

“But the grow bed media can even be free,” Crowther said. “You can just go down to a brook or river and pull out a bunch of pebbles.”

The final key component to this system is a small electric pump that brings the water from the fish’s bottom barrel to water the plants on the top barrel. A simple bell siphon then flushes the water back down to the fish tank once it fills to a certain level.


The concept behind aquaponics is based in the nitrogen cycle, which many of us learned in middle-school science class.

Nitrogen in the soil that was deposited by precipitation takes the form of nitrates, which plants need to grow. (Fertilizers incorporate nitrates for this reason.) All fish excrete ammonia, a nitrogen compound, which can kill them if it accumulates to too high a concentration in the water.

Plants are able to absorb that ammonia in the water with the help of the bacteria nitrosomona and nitrobacter. Because the water is recycled, a closed aquaponics system uses approximately 90 percent less water than traditional farming methods, and the system allows both the fish and the plants to exchange nitrogen to their mutual benefit.

Crowther’s interest in aquaponics came about as a synthesis of many other lifelong interests, primarily with aquariums, gardening, and science.

“[I saw aquaponics as] a way of getting back into traditional gardening and incorporating my passion for being an aquarium hobbyist in the past,” he said.

“We love to farm, but the drawback of traditional farming in Vermont is that once you harvest your food, you don’t get to start up until the following spring,” he added.

“With aquaponics you can grow a wide variety of crops year round,” Crowther said. “I thought maybe it would be interesting to get the fish into the system and farm in a way where I didn’t have to pull a weed.”

Crowther primarily grows cool-season vegetables—lettuce and a few spice plants (including mustard and cilantro)—in his system.

While his system is too small to raise fish that could be “table-ready” (that is, suitable for human consumption), larger systems could incorporate harvestable fish (trout, tilapia, perch, etc.).

Crowther preferred his first system to incorporate local species, which meant that they had to be cold-water fish.

With issues of overfishing from the world’s oceans and the myriad problems associated with fish farming (including larger environmental impact and escapement), aquaponics can seem like a panacea for those who raise fish.

However, the question rapidly arises if the artificial lights, pumps, and materials used in an aquaponics system are more cost effective than the fish and produce grown by more conventional methods used to raise the food that now appears in grocery stores.

Crowther believes that the best way to make these systems economically viable is to suit the systems to their climate; he intends to move his systems outside during the summer, replacing the artificial (and costly) heat and lighting with sunlight.

Tilapia has become popular with fish farmers because they “grow so quickly and reproduce like crazy,” Crowther said, but this type of warm-water fish would require too much heat to be viable here in Vermont.

Cold-water fish like perch and rainbow trout are better suited to the climate, and they still grow large and fast enough to be sold commercially.

To Crowther, aquaponics is ripe for taking hold in the region because “we are already invested in education, sustainability, and organic food and are confined to a short outdoor growing season.”

“Unfortunately, aquaponics has never gained ground on a commercial level in our area because of the brief exposure Brattleboro had to Carbon Harvest,” he said, referring to the currently stalled aquaponics endeavor on Brattleboro’s Old Ferry Road.

Carbon Harvest planned to grow tilapia and various types of produce, but has not gotten off the ground due to financial difficulties.

One of Carbon Harvest’s planning errors, Crowther said, might have been attempting to grow a warm-water fish, which meant that the entire building had to be heated to a tropical level that is simply cost prohibitive.

“That was too bad for Brattleboro, but smaller systems could work for the community from more of a grassroots level, if not on a commercial level,” he said. “The idea is still worth spreading so people can see the value in farming this way.”

Crowther sees those who would be most interested in aquaponics as people who are attracted to in sustainable agriculture, who are curious about where their food comes from, who respect nature, and who want to bring some of it into their homes.

With some plans pulled from the Internet, some creativity and a do-it-yourself attitude, anyone can construct an aquaponics system.

“One advantage of this is that it’s not an elitist undertaking,” he said. “You don’t need much money to get started.”

At Crowther’s workshops with BEEC and Transition Putney in May, participants learned how to construct their own portable aquaponics systems, and all ages were welcome.

“Once kids figure out that you can very easily adapt an aquarium to grow lettuce with a simple 10-gallon tank and a 5-gallon bucket, they’ll realize that it’s fun to watch things grow and will be interactive with this whole process,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the March 20, 2013 issue of The Commons.

About the Author

Alexandra Ossola

Alexandra Ossola

Alex Ossola works at Putney Student Travel and writes in her spare time. When she is not traveling to far-off lands, she indulges her fascination with science in a vicious cycle of learning, reading, writing, and talking about science.

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Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.


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