Finance

This company grows vegetables in a factory using fish manure

The test is successful. The company, which started in March in a factory building, will be expanded considerably next year. The advantages: less agricultural land is needed and there is a double turnover, from the sale of fish and the sale of vegetables.

Foam Floating Rafts

A purple light illuminates a greenhouse in Eindhoven. The light shines on a number of plants that hang in floating foam rafts. The plant roots hang in the water, which is always pumped through artificial ditches via a closed system. The purple light stimulates growth.

The smallest plants with only a few leaves are at the front of the rafts. “They have just come out of the germination greenhouse,” explains Roy Peeters, co-owner of Phood Farm. “As they get bigger, we transplant them two more times. Every time they are one stage further, the rafts are pushed forward in the row and at the front there are rafts with the youngest plants with lettuce and herbs.”

That growth is rapid. Not only because of the special light, but also because the plants are continuously fed with fish manure. Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics, which is the cultivation of plants without soil.

There are two open tanks in the greenhouse, where 180 koi carp are crawling through each other. Their poo, full of ammonia, sinks to the bottom of the tank, after which it ends up in a sedimentation tank through a filter system.

There are hundreds of capsules in tank three. The bacteria in the capsules ensure that the ammonia in the water is converted into nutrients for the plants. This nutrient-rich water is pumped to the plants. “They are now six weeks old,” says Peeters, pointing to a fully grown lettuce plant.

Normally it takes twice as long. “The nitrate and other nutrients are absorbed by the plant. The plants grow twice as fast as in the open ground. The roots filter the water and the clean water flows back to the fish tank.”

First large-scale commercial test

Aquaponics has already been used in the Netherlands by hobby growers, but not yet on a large commercial scale. “We wanted to know if you could also start a successful business with it. It went very quickly. We now supply local shops, restaurants and our own restaurant. Next year we will expand in this area. to be able to produce more. The rafts are now one-layer, that will be five-layer.”

People with a distance to the labor market grow the plants until they can leave the seed greenhouse and are also responsible for repotting.

Need less water

Currently, about 200 kilos of lettuce are harvested per week in Eindhoven. Chemical pesticides are not necessary. A double door leads to the greenhouse, which prevents insects from entering. In addition, two sturgeons swim in the water near the plants, which keep the roots of all lettuce and herbs clean of any snails.

An advantage of aquaponics: it is much more sustainable than regular agriculture, according to Peeters. “We use 90 percent less water than in traditional agriculture. The roots absorb a small part and some evaporate.” A second advantage: it does not require scarce agricultural land. For example, the Phood Farm greenhouse is located in a hall of an old milk factory, where Campina used to be.

Microgreens

In April, the company started a new project in another hall on the site. Microgreens are grown here. It concerns the young shoots of, for example, sunflower, pea or radish. The peduncles contain two to four leaves. That doesn’t seem like much, but such a seedling contains all the healthy substances of the adult plant, according to Peeters, but much more concentrated. “It differs per species, but one hundred grams of micro vegetables is about 40 times more concentrated than one hundred grams of fully-grown broccoli,” says Peeters.

In contrast to the lettuce and herbs, the micro-vegetables are in the soil. “But they have a very short cycle, you can harvest after two weeks. And the shoots are very close together, unlike mature plants, so the cultivation takes up little space.”

While he talks, he continuously picks some microgreens to taste them. He also offers some shoots. “This is sunflower, this is broccoli, kale, red cabbage, radishes and peas,” he points to some shoots.

The shoot of a young pea plant tastes exactly like regular peas. “The same goes for radishes and the shoot of a sunflower tastes like sunflower seeds. Other shoots sometimes taste slightly different. It is used in salads or in pastas.”

Urban farming

New expansion plans are ready. Opposite the factory site is a residential area with a large green strip of three hectares. “We want to use half of it to grow vegetables together with the residents in a natural way, using regenerative farming methods.”

Plowing is not necessary with this food forest, the insects in the soil do that like the worms. “It’s about urban farming. Local residents can help and collect points. This gives them a discount on vegetables.”

Cost

With aquaponics you can grow almost all kinds of vegetables, for example tomatoes, eggplant and grain. However, due to the amount of fertilizer these plants need, the costs are still too high compared to conventional agriculture. Lettuce plants need less fertilizer. The growing method is less suitable for some fruits and vegetables, such as apples.

In the Netherlands, aquaponics is new on a commercial scale, abroad it has been used for years. Even NASA is experimenting with it to grow food on other planets. “It is a solution to the nitrogen problem and the worldwide shortage of fresh water”, Peeters knows.

Double turnover

When the Eindhoven koi carp are large, they are sold to enthusiasts with a pond. In other countries, for example, aquaponics are used to cultivate tilapia fish, which means that sales can be made from both vegetable sales and fish sales.

An additional advantage is that you can grow the vegetables in an urban environment, for example in a cellar or on a roof terrace. So less transport is needed to get it to the population who mainly live in the city.

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