On the outskirts of Makhanda, off a long, bending dirt road, is the gate to Aquaponics Innovations. It’s a family-owned farm that uses aquaponics to farm fresh produce like cucumbers, basil, chives, spring onions and lettuce, as well as an assortment of herbs and strange variations of foods like purple kale, yellow spinach, red spinach, and lemon basil. It began in 2002, with just two employees. Now it supports six full-time employees as well as two casual staff.
Red and Yellow spinach are just two of the strange foods they grow here. Photo by Jessica Evans.
“BEWARE OF THE DOGS”, the gate says. Soon enough it opens for me and I can see what lies nestled in the bush almost out of town. I travel on the path beyond the gate and meet my tour guide, Percy Van Der Westhuysen. I’m greeted by a petrifying German Shepard who, after giving me a good sniff decides I’m a friend, not a foe, and asks very kindly for some scratches. Then we depart on our walk.
Percy is happiest among the plants he looks after. Photo by Jessica Evans.
There’s so much to see and I can tell by the way Percy speaks. He’s a river of information, telling me everything anyone could ever want to know about aquaponics, how the farm works, and just about anything else. He doesn’t stop.
"Systems need checking, fish need feeding, plants need love"
Percy is the manager of the farm. He starts his day at 7am and does the rounds to see if anything needs attention or maintenance, then makes tailored programmes for the team to follow throughout the day. There’s a lot going on – a lot of systems that need checking, fish that need feeding, and plants that need love. I catch just a glimpse on this tour.
First is a tunnel, much like the futuristic space habitats you imagine when you picture humans on Mars. It’s a cold day, but inside the tunnel is warm and humid. The tilapia, the kind of fish they currently use for their aquaponics at Aquaponics Innovations, need water temperatures of at least 23 degrees, so the tunnel helps to keep the temperature just right for them.
This tunnel is a forest of cucumbers. All the yellow flowers will turn into cucumbers. Photo by Jessica Evans.
Sounds of water bubbling, trickling, and gushing fill the air. It’s a noisy space, but peaceful nonetheless. It’s a space of growth. “Ecologically the impact is so small. We are actually cleaning water; our footprint is small for the kilos that we produce; you don’t need a lot of energy to run the systems,” Percy tells me.
As soon as we enter, I notice the ‘ponds’ on the right. Bright orange tilapia watch us carefully – do we bring food offerings? No. And so the attention withers a bit.
"Do you bring food???" Photo by Jessica Evans.
The waste from the fish sinks to the bottom and gets sucked up a device that then transports it to the beds. It’s in these beds that the nitrifying bacteria live, sheltered by gravel and nourished with dirty water. This bacteria converts the toxic fish waste into usable nutrients for the plants.
"Aquaponics is the most rewarding"
Percy has been farming since 1997. Eventually he got into hydroponics, and now aquaponics. He says that after all he’s done, aquaponics is the most rewarding. “This is the way to go – ecologically speaking, environmentally speaking, even the cost, the footprint – it just makes sense. You can produce a lot of food off a rugby field size!”
Each gravel bed weighs 1,5 tonnes! Photo by Jessica Evans.
I wander off after Percy, who enthusiastically shows me every vegetable in the system, picking a leaf every now and then for me to nibble on and taste. Having walked around a bit now, I realise the system isn’t what I pictured. I don’t know what I pictured but it wasn’t this. The veggies grow in beds of gravel. That way, the “fish water” as Percy calls it, can pass quite easily through.
The gravel beds have pipes running to them, that pop out at one corner. When it’s time for the fish water the pipes flood the beds for a bit, and then the beds are drained, leaving just-quenched produce. The newly cleaned water then traverses even more pipes and is returned to the tilapia, renewed and ready to become fish water again.
This is one of the pipes that floods the beds with dirty fish water. This bed is growing coriander. Photo by Jessica Evans.
At the ends of the gravel beds are tanks like this that collect filtered water. When the tank is full the water flows into the weight, pushing it down and triggering the release mechanism that returns the water to the fish. Photo by Jessica Evans.
A forest of cucumbers makes up most of this tunnel. They are strung up to keep them vertical, and their enormous leaves and strange flowers brush my shoulders as Percy leads me out again.
Cucumber flowers dot the forest with bursts of yellow. Photo by Jessica Evans.
Percy spends his days in these tunnels and elsewhere on the farm, checking that everything runs smoothly. Photo by Jessica Evans.
When they start to bear fruit, the cucumber leaves wilt a little because all the energy is going into the cucumbers themselves. Photo by Jessica Evans.
The cucumbers are strung up vertically because they are creeping vines that naturally grow upwards. Photo by Jessica Evans.
He leads me to another tunnel on the farm. This is the lettuce tunnel. Outside it is a reservoir of excess fish water from the aquaculture section of the farm – the part that grows and sells fish rather than using them for aquaponics. Here the water is bubbled through with air then pumped into the tunnel and filtered by the plants. After that, it’s sent back to the aquaculture part of the farm.
In the lettuce tunnel, veggies grow on floating polystyrene rafts. Photo by Jessica Evans.
The whole principle of aquaponics is that everything is cycled. “We recycle 90% of our water, if not more,” explains Percy. Here the practice of cycling goes a bit further. Nothing gets wasted. Even scraps of produce and the fish that didn’t make it are composted and spread around the indigenous trees that dot the farm.
"We recycle 90% of our water, if not more"
In the lettuce tunnel Percy is testing out a new method of growing cucumbers where they grow in water alone, without gravel. If he can get it right he plans on growing cucumbers out of small holes in polystyrene rafts that float on the nutrient-rich fish water. That's the way lettuce is grown here.
Percy's experimental set up with growing cucumbers in water. The roots clog the pipes so a little more experimenting is needed. Photo by Jessica Evans.
Percy cares very deeply about every aspect of the aquaponics company he joined in 2017. He has a hand in everything, even in the packaging, which he says is 100% recyclable and keeps produce fresh for longer periods.
His love extends into future plans. A local florist is keen on trying to grow some flowers using aquaponics, and Percy is eager to test it out. He’s going to put up a third tunnel, to fill with even more bubbling sounds and silent growth. There’s a lot still to do.
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