By Christina Whiting
For the past 10 years, Sonja Martin Young has thought someone should provide community members and local restaurants with healthy greens that are grown locally all year long. Last year, she realized that someone could be her.
“Veggies are the most nutritious right after you harvest them,” she said. “It’s just wrong that we have to import our produce from so far away when — in theory — we can grow it here, be more self-sustaining and not have the shipping costs.”
Sonja and her husband Tom set out to build a large greenhouse on their property. Not just any greenhouse, but an aquaponic greenhouse. Aquaponics is a technique for growing and cultivating plants without utilizing soil.
“With hydroponics, even if you use organic fertilizer, you eventually have to get rid of all the water because it only recycles to a certain point,” she said. “With aquaponics, you don’t have to clean or weed – you just get to feed people.”
The couple started their business “Alaska Aquaponics,” and began building the greenhouse last July. They bought what they could locally, and imported only when necessary.
Set on a corner of their three-acre property near Baycrest Hill, the couple built a Rimol brand structure that measures 22 by 36 feet. It has an insulated sand floor heated by hot water running through tubes, and an air circulation system that pulls heat from the ceiling and stores it in the floor. It is covered with triple layer polycarbonate, and the average daytime temperature is 68 degrees. Evening temperatures hover around 55 degrees, thanks to natural gas heating and in-wall fans.
A short ladder leads to the top of a 1,000-gallon plastic water tank that is home to 300 Koi and goldfish, some of which were shipped from a Koi farm in Florida. Others were garnered from local ponds. Three times a day, the fish are fed regular fish food and duckweed.
Nutrients are provided from the fish living in the tank to the plants via PVC and a gravity-fed piping system that leads from the tank to media beds. The beds flood and drain with clay pellets that support the plants that grow in them. Worms live in the media beds and the beds work to filter solids so that the water can gravity flow to the 24 raft beds. A trough filled with water and sheets of blue board with holes cut through to allow the plants to grow. One pump takes water back up to the fish tank.
The process couldn’t be more natural; worms break down the solids in the system, plants clean the water and the fish provide the nutrients.
Currently, Sonja is growing lettuce. She has 768 plants of 15 different varieties, as well as kale, Swiss chard, mustard greens, cilantro, basil, oregano, thyme, squash, tomatoes, nasturtiums, Bok Choy, Joy Choy and Purple Choy. The first lettuce was planted in early March, and the couple started harvesting lettuce and kale in early April. Today, they harvest a new batch of lettuce each week.
The goal is to provide a local version of Community Supported Agriculture, where community members join and receive a weekly box of fresh vegetables, similar to a smaller version of Full Circle Farm. Hundreds of Homer residents currently receive produce from Full Cirlce. The food boxes would be comparable in price to the Homer Farmers Market and would be delivered to a central location in town each week for members to pick up.
Local harvesting and supplying will begin in early to mid June. Several businesses have already signed up to participate in the program, including Fresh Sourdough Express and Anchor Point Natural Foods in Homer, as well as Quiet Place Lodge in Halibut Cove.
Sonja considers her garden to be better than organic.
“I’m not certified organic because that is a very expensive process for such a small facility,” she said. “We have to use organic practices because even many of the organically certified pest controls would kill the fish.”
While not a gardener by trade, Sonja has been growing plants and vegetables for her family on a small scale for years. She works as a Certified Nurse Midwife at Homer Medical Center and a Woman’s Nurse Practitioner at Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic.
Tom is a commercial pilot, artist and assistant big game hunting guide.
Building such a large greenhouse was no easy task, as Sonja spent hundreds of hours doing research on the Internet and visiting aquaponic greenhouses in New Mexico, Colorado and Florida. She also joined the Aquaponic Gardening Community forum and did a lot of reading. She said her gardening bible is “Aquaponic Gardening” by Sylvia Bernstein.
Sonja is aware of aquaponic greenhouses in Palmer and Soldotna, but as far as she knows, she is the only person in Alaska utilizing hers commercially.
“Our community is so excited about good, healthy, fresh food and I am really excited to be part of joining the food revolution of growing locally,” she said.
Tour the greenhouse during an open house on June 7 and 8, noon to 4 p.m. To get there take the Sterling Highway to Saltwater Drive, drive to the end of the road, look for the large greenhouse, park and walk up.
For more information and to join the Alaska Aquaponics family, visit their Facebook page or aquaponics.com, call 299-1800 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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