Aquaponics at Ouroboros Farms:
A Look at a New Way of Farming
Story and Photos by Irma Mitton
“Something fishy is going on in Pescadero” reads the statement on the back of Ken Armstrong’s business card. But there’s no fishy odor inside his Ouroboros Farms greenhouse, despite being home to several hundred Asian carp and Channel catfish that provide the not-so-secret ingredient to the farm’s success. Instead, the air smells fresh, clean and healthy, a reflection of the natural and symbiotic process taking place within.
Established just a year ago, Ouroboros Farms grows vibrant, chemical-free salad greens, herbs and other produce in a large-scale aquaponics system. Founder Ken Armstrong, along with CFO (that’s Chief Farming Officer) Kenji Snow and several others, are committed to improving local food supplies while sharing their accumulated wisdom with others.
Their leased greenhouse space is part farm, part test facility and part community classroom for advancing innovations in producing healthy, pure food.
Though its origins are ancient, aquaponics is a modern term for growing food in a self-sustaining, closed-loop system using water enriched with nutrients from fish waste. (Before you say “eeew,” consider the ingredients of conventional fertilizer and compost added to soil-based crops.) It was Armstrong’s personal quest for local sources of high-quality, pure and healthy foods that led him to discover the work of Will Allen, founder of Growing Power, an urban farm and aquaponics project in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the co-author of The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People and Communities.
Allen’s work was so inspiring, “I recognized then what I was meant to do,” says Armstrong. But it took some serendipity to make the vision a reality. Armstrong’s friend Joanne Brohmer happened to know Snow, a backyard aquaponics advocate who was looking for a way to expand his operations. Together, the team founded Ouroboros Farms in mid-2012, leased the greenhouse space from the Armanino family at Lemon Hill in Pescadero and began construction of the first system. Three months later, they harvested their first crop, started selling at local farmers markets and partnered with two other local growers, Del Sur Farms and Farmageddon Farms, to create a CSA.
While the farm is attracting a loyal customer following, Community Relations Manager Jessica Patton notes that most people aren’t familiar with the basics of aquaponics. When people find out the food is grown using water flushed from fish waste, it leads to funny looks.
“The most common question we get from people is ‘What about contamination from E. coli and salmonella?’” says Patton. “But those pathogens require warm-blooded hosts. They literally can’t exist in an aquaponics system.” Indeed, among the advantages of growing in aquaponics is the system’s self-containment, resulting in a very pure environment and high-quality food.
At Ouroboros, the fish are ensconced in tanks separate from the planting beds, munch on a gourmet version of certified-organic fish food and “do their thing” in 1,300 gallons of water, which becomes the foundation effluent for the plant-growing system. In deep first-stage beds, worms and beneficial bacteria help convert the fish effluent into clean, nutrient-rich water, which circulates through a series of shallower grow beds before returning to the fish tank.
The plants—from heavy-stalked and vining types like tomatoes and Brussels sprouts to delicate salad greens and herbs—must feel like they are in a 24-hour foot spa, roots dangling freely as temperate water swirls while providing a liquid diet. With constant nourishment readily available, all types of chard, kale, mustard and collard greens, lettuces and herbs flourish in dense bunches.
“The plants take only what they need,” explains Armstrong. “Because they don’t have to grow big roots to get down through compacted soil, they can put more energy into growing up, into producing food. So we can grow healthy food faster, in less space, with 90% less water than a soil-based system.”
Besides the main growing areas, the farm includes a seedling nursery to supply the hundreds of new starts that are added to the floating beds each week. Wicking beds—deep, soil-filled containers irrigated from the bottom up with nutrient-rich water from the aquaponics system—enable the farm to grow vegetables such as carrots, beets and radishes that rely on soil’s density to form into regular shapes. Tucked along the sides of the building are biodynamic planting areas for beneficial insects, such as lacewings and ladybugs, which keep pests away from the crops.
Though all aquaponics systems use fish, not all aquaponics farms are also licensed to process and sell fish for human consumption, which requires additional licensing and facilities to meet health code regulations. While Ouroboros Farms hopes to add this to their future production, at present their fish are just hard-working friends, not food.
Unlike hydroponics, in which external nutrients are added to the water, aquaponics systems rely on the symbiotic relationship between the plants and the fish, as each sustains the other through the constant replenishing and recirculation. Thus the origin of the farm’s name: the word ouroboros (sometimes spelled uroboros) refers to an ancient symbol depicting a snake or dragon swallowing its own tail and forming a circle.
“It means life is never-ending,” says Armstrong. “Things just change form. Our mission is to grow food in a totally self-sustainable, cyclical system, and to help people make the connection to food in this way.”
Connecting people with food is what originally inspired and continues to drive Snow. While laid off from work as a security officer, he began growing organic vegetables to share with the children in his wife’s home-based daycare. “The kids didn’t know where their food came from until they saw me pulling carrots out of the ground,” says Snow.
After a successful year of using a single four-foot by four-foot aquaponics system to feed his own household, Snow was hooked. He abandoned his soil garden and started looking for ways to advance the use of aquaponics on a commercial scale.
Snow sees aquaponics as a practical, within-our-grasp solution to food deserts—areas (typically in low-income communities) where residents lack access to fresh, affordable, local and sustainable whole foods. “We can grow twice the amount of food, with 90% less water, in a self-sustaining aquaponics system,” he says. “If we can teach people how to do this, there’s no reason anyone should have to go hungry.” In a corner of the greenhouse is a home-scale aquaponics system, which can be built in less than a day, with materials mostly available through local home centers.
While their aspirations are lofty, the Ouroboros team is proceeding in a thoughtful, intentional manner, expanding their production capacity one system at a time and making adjustments to materials, water flows, equipment and harvesting techniques as they observe the nutritional needs of their plants and fish. In keeping with their mission to share what they learn, tours and trainings are a regular part of the farm’s calendar.
“People should have face time with the farmer,” says Snow. “They should ask ‘How do you grow?’ and they should know their food is safe, pure and sustainable.”
Ouroboros Farms produce is available at the Saturday College of San Mateo Farmers Market and the Wednesday Mountain Goat Farmers Market in Woodside. Public tours are the first Saturday of every month; contact Jessica Patton firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information visit www.OuroborosFarms.com.
Irma Mitton is a writer, communications consultant and sustainable community advisor. She lives and plays on a small organic farm in Pescadero, where she raises children, chickens and (occasionally) heritage turkeys, and provides a posh pasture for retired dairy goats.