UNH aquaponic facility built to boost local agriculture

October 17. 2018 11:27PM

In an effort to support sustainable agriculture, the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of New Hampshire has opened a new aquaponic greenhouse facility. (Todd Guerdat/UNH)DURHAM — In an effort to support sustainable agriculture, the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of New Hampshire has opened a new aquaponic greenhouse facility.

“Over half of the world’s seafood is produced from aquaculture,” said NH Agricultural Experiment Station researcher Todd Guerdat, “Eighty percent of the seafood we eat in the United States is imported, resulting in nearly an annual $11 billion trade deficit for seafood alone. We need to take control of our food production systems by developing a sustainable, U.S.-based aquaculture industry.”

Guerdat, an assistant professor of agricultural engineering, is leading the project at the Kingman Research Farm, an experiment station facility in Madbury.

“Supporting sustainable agriculture in the Northeast United States requires a renewed focus on integrating agricultural production systems, such as combining recirculating aquaculture systems and hydroponic crop production,” Guerdat said. “Agricultural systems become more economically viable when integrated and provide an ideal farming model that produces fish and plants for food, both locally and sustainably.”

Under construction for two years, the new aquaponic research facility at the UNH Kingman Research Farm consists of three identical greenhouses. According to a UNH news release, it will allow scientists to evaluate hydroponic plants grown using water from a recirculating aquaculture system fertilized with nutrients from the food fed to fish.

“Specifically, scientists are investigating how to balance nutrient production from the fish and nutrient uptake by the plants, studying food safety concerns, developing integrated pest management solutions, and optimizing the designs based on economic modeling,” the news release states.

The plan is to demonstrate the results to producers by offering hands-on workshops covering a full range of topics, including hydroponics, aquaculture, and integrated aquaponic system design and operation.

“In an age where growing, buying, and eating locally improves food security for all, food production systems that are sustainable economically and environmentally are more important than ever,” Guerdat said. “Recirculating aquaculture businesses are already in use in New Hampshire and the Northeast.”

He said many questions remain. How do you balance the fish and plant production systems? How big should each be? What are realistic production estimates for business plan development? What is the most efficient design for a recirculating aquaculture system?

“This research aims to answer all of these questions so anyone — a farmer or individual grower — can take the results and apply them directly to their own application,” Guerdat said.

According to the news release, the research project has received extensive support and interest from local restaurants and chefs, as well as those in the food retail industry.

Earlier this summer, 35 executives from Ahold Delhaize, one of the world’s largest food retailer groups that includes Hannaford, Stop and Shop, and Peapod, visited the new facility while it was under construction.

Megan Hellstedt, vice president of sustainable retailing from Ahold Delhaize, called the research “key to our industry.”

“For instance, an aquaponics facility that can produce strawberries late into the season would mean that we can ensure high quality food throughout the year,” Hellstedt said.

“On their own, our suppliers, who are often local suppliers, do not have the capabilities to run this type of research.”

“The fish taste fantastic,” said Lee Frank, chef at Otis in Exeter, who recently served fish raised in the new UNH system to restaurant patrons.

Researchers met a milestone in August when they hit their production goal on their first run of Boston butter head lettuce, the news release states.

They grew the lettuce in 35 days from seed to harvest and hit the required weight using only nutrients from the fish.

“Stay tuned for more results. We’ll be using even more nutrients to do good things for sustainable, local food production.” Guerdat said.

This material is based upon work supported by the NH Agricultural Experiment Station, through joint funding of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the state of New Hampshire.

The research also is supported by NH Sea Grant and the USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.

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