The Farm in the Dining Room: Aquaponics Grow Your Salad

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By Tessa Raebeck; photography by Michael Heller

Fish tanks are used solely as decoration at most restaurants, sometimes they might supply an entrée, but rarely do they grow the plants in your salad.

At Page at 63 Main in Sag Harbor, the restaurant has installed a new aquaponics system, using nutrients released by fish to grow its in-house greens.

“This is the future of the world,” said Page co-owner Gerry Wawryk. “This is the future of the planet, if you really think about it.”

Aquaponics is a system of food production that combines conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals, such as fish, in tanks) with hydroponics (the cultivation of plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. Water from the aquaculture system, or essentially, the fish tanks, feeds into the hydroponic system, where fish by-products are broken down by bacteria into nitrates and nitrites, in turn utilized by the plants as nutrients, or food.

“It’s the same thing that happens in our guts—what our body pulls up is the nutrition after all the bacteria and stuff in our guts have turned it into available nutrition,” explained Teryl Chapel of the Koru Collaborative Design team, who is leading the aquaponics design and construction at Page.

The Aztecs are the first known farmers to combine aquaculture with plants. Through the system chinampas, they raised plants on islands, using waste from the canals to irrigate them. The Chinese and other Far Eastern cultures also used fish to cultivate and farm rice in paddy fields.

“It’s been around for centuries,” Mr. Chapel said, adding modern materials such as plastics and motors have created the opportunity for a new expression of the ancient technique.

In the basement at Page, tucked away among the conventional store rooms and walk-ins of a restaurant, is a small room, about 8 square feet, that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. On the back wall, bright purple LED lights line rows of horizontal troughs housing greens — kale, basil, radicchio, and many more — that rotate in a vertical movement like that of a water mill. The purple spectrum is the combination of blue and red wavelengths that is conducive to horticulture and growing leafy greens.

Diners at Page at 63 next to a wall of aquaponics in the dining room.
Diners at Page at 63 next to a wall of aquaponics in the dining room.

In the center of the grow room, which Page’s assistant manager Debbie Hununeken calls “the mother ship,” is a large fish tank, containing 125 gallons of water and 25 tilapia fish. A hanging vertical light moves back and forth in between the tank and another wall of vertically hanging greens.

“If you smell the air, it just smells alive with greenery,” Ms. Hununeken said of the grow room.

The nutrient cycle starts with feeding the tilapia organic fish food. The by-products are then transported in the water through tubes, which deliver the nutrients to the troughs and towers of plants.

“There’s about 2,000 plants in this room…in various forms from seedlings to maturing plants,” Mr. Chapel said.

The system, according to Mr. Chapel, requires 90-percent less water and up to 60 percent less space than food grown conventionally in soil. The entire process is done naturally, with no pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

The room appears to be in the future and, in a way, it is. In a world that is quickly running out of farmland, water and virtually everything else, aquaponics offers a sustainable way to feed and grow plants.

Aquaponics, Mr. Chapel said, can “start to mitigate some of the negative effects of changing seasons, climate change, or whatever cause a lot of farmers are struggling with —too much rain, not enough rain, too much heat, too much cold, the extremes that we’re starting to experience are affecting our ability to produce food.”

In its back dining room, Page has another wall of food production. Two tanks house coy fish, goldfish, dojo loach (fish resembling small eels) and other fish, connected to vertical hanging towers of greens. The adorned wall looks like an intricate decoration, when, in reality, it’s supplying the fresh, nutritious greens of the farmer’s market salads on the tables below it.

Through the room’s glass ceiling, diners can see another wall of aquaponics plants enjoying the sun on the building’s roof.

Aquaponics may be as old as the Aztecs, but with purple spectrums, rotating towers and fish tanks growing micro greens, it appears the future has arrived.

 

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