How would one go about tackling the issues of unsustainable farming practices that is causing more than one negative impact on our environment?
Two Humber graduates, Pablo Alvarez and Craig Petten, have figured out how to do just that.
Over the recent years, the word “sustainability” has become a popular marketing term. As the public’s knowledge and concern about the scarcity of resources grew over the years, the demand for sustainable technology and innovation skyrocketed.
Answering that demand, entrepreneurs Alvarez and Petten behind their company Aqua Greens, turned sustainable aquaponic food production technology into a profitable business idea.
The two Humber graduates of the Sustainable Energy and building Technology program at Humber, Alvarez and Petten, designed and constructed an aquaponic system in their last year of school. Since then, they have been busy trying to implement their passion in sustainable technology into a viable, profitable, environmental and agricultural solution.
One of the ways in which one can reduce the carbon footprint and energy consumption is to innovate the food production technique. Food production, agriculture, and the transportation of the food products are some of the main causes of negative environmental impact coming from human activities.
Here’s how aquaponic farming technology tackles all three of these issues.
The process is divided into two sections. In two separate pools, one pool houses vegetables that have their roots down in the water in pods. In the other pool there are tilapia fish. Tilapia fish is fed with nutrient rich organic fish food and they excrete in the water. The mixture of water and excrements then goes through pipes, which leads them through different levels of filters, where all of the solid waste is filtered out, leaving only the ammonia in the water.
Through natural bacterial cycles, the ammonia turns into nitrite, then into nitrate, which is an essential nutrient that plants feed on to grow. This nutrient rich water is then put into the plant pool where the roots of the vegetables consume the nutrients in order to grow.
Using this method, Alvarez and Petten can grow vegegtables like basil, chives, lettuce, and arugula and tilapila fish.
However, what passes this process as a sustainable technology is the fact that this method requires 90 per cent less water compared to conventional farming methods. Aquaponics do not require any soil and the direct root-to-water contact makes the plants grow twice as fast as compared to plants that grow in soil. Once the nutrients are filtered out of the water, the water goes back into the fish tank, making the method a closed-loop cycle. Also being able to have the mechanism indoors allows them to farm through the long cold winter.
Because of the fact that the water used to grow the vegetables are fed directly back into the fish tank, the vegetables grow without the use of pesticide, herbicide, and fungiside, making the vegetables organic and healthy.
As average meal travels over 1,500 miles to reach one’s plate, and 70 per cent of the food people eat in Toronto is shipped in from different countries either by land, air or water, Alvarez and Petten are working on bringing the aquaponic farming to the city where they can supply the city’s demand for locally grown fish and vegetables that are cheaper, healthier and more environmentally friendly.
“We have so many warehouses empty due to the manufacturing pulling out of Ontario, but now we can turn it around, without having to break new ground and be able to grow something,” said Petten in an interview with Spacing.
Their road to ambition is not without hurdles, because of the city’s post-amalgamation Zoning Bylaw 569-2013, adopted in May 2013, which banned agriculture within city limits. Currently there are efforts being put out by grous like Toronto Food Policty Council and Toronto Public Health, who are trying to make urban agriculture zoning a reality as a part of a plan titled ‘GrowTO’
“We’re working on developing specific zoning for the ability to do agriculture in urban centres,” said Michael Wolfson, a member of Toronto Agriculture Program steering committee and a senior advisor of the city’s food and beverage in an interview with Spacing.
Until this process is through, which may involve reports, community consultation, and possible battle at the Ontario Municipal Board, Aqua Greens will be running their business in Mississauga.
To get to this point of success, Aqua Greens has had their fair share of help and guidance. Their board of advisors include Jim Gill, the founder and president of Aqua Growers in Michigan with over 7 years of experiences in Hydroponics and Aquaponics. Nicholas Wong is advising Aqua Greens in its business aspect with strategic and operational experience with Loblaw Companies Limited. Sean Powers, a partner at Bansal & Power, is providing advice on strategic planning, risk mitigation, and project management.
Humber College has played a role in Aqua Greens’ success as well. HumberLaunch for Entrepreneurs provides funding opportunities for Humber students, graduates, and community members. in 2014, Craig Petten and Pablo Alvarez won $20,000 from the LaunchPad competition and $10,000 in funding from the New Venture Seed Fund competition in 2013.
“HumberLaunch is the destination for entrepreneurial innovation. We help entrepreneurs take their business idea and grow that business idea into successful ventures,” said Cheryl Mitchell, a program manager at HumberLaunch.
Some of the ways in which HumberLaunch helps entrepreneurs, are through mentorship, business planning events, workshops, social media workshops, and networking events. Petten and Alvarez were first introduced to HumberLaunch by Jake Harding and Gustavo Macias, who are also entrepreneurs in sustainable technology with their company, Skyline Farms.
“They are here quite often, they come and visit us to photocopy things, print things out. They used our 3D printer to print a little prototyle,” said Cheryl.
Aqua Greens have had support coming from the local community as well. Through Kickstarter, a website that facilitates public funding, Petten and Alvarez were able to raise $25,320 with 149 backers from February 26, 2014 to August 20, 2014.
If business runs smoothly for the first two years, and the zoning bylaw changes, Petten and Alvarez plans to expand their business in Toronto. Their ultimate ambition is to take over a 20,000-square-foot site in Toronto.