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How do your heirloom tomatoes grow?

Juneau's aquaponics business branches out

Posted: July 10, 2013 - 12:09am
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Trevor Kirchhoff, owner of Get Growing, stands by a floating bed aquaponics system that is growing heirloom tomatoes.  EMILY RUSSO MILLER | JUNEAU EMPIRE
EMILY RUSSO MILLER | JUNEAU EMPIRE
Trevor Kirchhoff, owner of Get Growing, stands by a floating bed aquaponics system that is growing heirloom tomatoes.

Tucked in the back corner of the new “Get Growing” warehouse and storefront is a floating bed aquaponics system that is sprouting Alaska Fancy organic heirloom tomatoes.

Water flows from a fish tank through a filter to the wooden table bed where tomatoes in petri dishes float on about 12 inches of water. The water then drains out the other side of the four-by-eight table, then recycles back to the fish tank.

Sound like something you could build? If not, don’t be intimidated.

“It’s a really big system,” Trevor Kirchhoff, the store owner, said.

The 29-year-old local resident opened the shop earlier this summer to sell high-end indoor gardening products, but built the floating bed to showcase to Juneauites what can be done — and grown — using aquaponics systems.

Aquaponics combines elements of traditional aquaculture and hydroponics to grow organic produce without soil. The plants and fish supply each other with the necessary nutrients to survive.

“Aquaponics is a really cool way to grow food, especially up here,” Kirchhoff said. “There’s not a lot of chance to grow things outdoors, and it can be a really productive way.”

The way it works, in essence, is that fish create waste that is naturally toxic to them. (That’s why a fish would die if just simply left in a cup of water without changing the water.) In an aquaponics system, bacteria breaks down the fish waste in a nutrient-rich solution that’s high in nitrogen, one of the three essential elements in plant food. Plants thrive on that broken down waste, use it as nutrients and end up cleaning water for the fish.

In other words, plants function as a natural filter for the fish’s water, while the fish provides the plants nutrients to grow. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

The biology and chemistry that make the system work may be complicated, but building a system doesn’t have to be, Kirchhoff said. He pointed to a fish tank sitting next to his computer, the smallest aquaponics system in the store, as an example of what beginners can build.

“This all runs of the same principle, just in miniature,” he said.

For beginners, the price of creating a simple aquaponics system varies, but would probably cost two hundred dollars or so.

“You could get started for a couple hundred of dollars to grow tomatoes, depending how much you want to grow or how big of a system,” he said. “If you build it yourself, you’d be able to get away with less than that. But for stuff that’s already pre-tested for beginners so you don’t have to connect anything out of the box, growing tomatoes in 10 minutes it would be a couple hundred dollars.”

Kirchhoff began tinkering with aquaponics while he was studying philosophy at the University of Nevada in Reno. Encouraging his interest was the owner of another local Juneau business, Teresa Busch of Plant People, who installed a hydroponic and aquaponic system at her store in 2011. Kirchhoff purchased those systems from her, and the indoor gardening portion of her business, to get his start with “Get Growing.”

Busch said she was thrilled about selling that portion of her business to Kirchhoff.

“I seriously cannot think of a better person to take over the indoor gardening portion of my business,” she said.

(Don’t worry, Plant People customers, Busch is still operating the commercial plant care portion of Plant People, along with weddings and special events.)

Community gardens and greenhouses are commonplace in Juneau, and aquaponic systems can be complementary to those, Kirchhoff said. Many failed greenhouses are converted into aquaponics, he said.

“Quite a few people have greenhouses set up around town, there’s not a whole bunch of people that are involved in aquaponics in Juneau, not as many certainly as down south,” he said.

Kirchhoff says this sort of sustainable food production is booming in the Lower 48, and he hopes to introduce it to people who drop by his store.

He says it’s always a good thing for people to think about where their food is coming from and what nutrients are in them.

“I’m just trying to bring people up to speed with what’s happening with the indoor gardening community, there’s a lot of innovation that’s happening, and it’s come a long way,” he said.

He says he hopes to sell the best vine-ripened tomatoes in Juneau.

“You can still have stuff growing in the middle of winter,” he said. ”We’ll see how many I can end up growing.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

 

IF YOU GO:

“Get Growing” store hours: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Sunday

Location: 5434 Shaune Drive, Juneau, Alaska

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