Farming is one of the most ancient production methods and incredibly essential in the survival of the human race.
It was the fundamental aspect that allowed humans to leave the Nomadic lifestyle and become Sedentary, creating villages and societies.
Now, being around for thousands of years, it’s no surprise the large number of technological and operational advances it has suffered throughout history.
Even though its roots also date far way back, two increasingly popular systems for producing food, nowadays, are hydroponics and aquaponics.
Both remove the soil aspect in terms of solid material and substitute it with water. The plants’ roots grow underwater, getting all the nutrients they need from it, making the vegetables, fruits, herbs, or greens to grow faster, healthier, tastier, and larger than regular farming methods.
Now, even though the outcome between these two methods isn’t that different, the process sure is, so we’ll start by explaining a bit on what hydroponics and aquaponics consist of.
With arguments explaining its advantages, hydroponics dates as far back as 1627, with “A Natural History” – a book written by Francis Bacon.
The idea is that, by removing soil and letting the plants grow in the water there’s a better precision with the type and quantity of nutrients they’re receiving.
Now, those nutrients don’t appear naturally, so there’s a need to use nutrient solutions in a water solvent.
The roots can stay only surrounded by water or can be physically supported by an inert medium, like perlite or gravel.
Aquaponics is an artificial cycle, inspired by Nature. In it, you combine aquaculture – the process of raising aquatic creatures, such as fish, crayfish, prawns, and others – and hydroponics.
With various individual components, you should be able to create this symbiosis: the fish, in a water tank, eat and breed, creating excrement. This would normally raise the water toxicity, but by introducing nitrifying bacteria to the environment, they’re able to transform the ammonia of the fish excrement and turn it into nitrites and, consequently, nitrates.
Then, the water is pumped into a regular hydroponics farm, where the plants will take advantage of that nutrient-rich water. They will also fill it with oxygen, so when the water is pumped back into the fish tank it creates a healthy ecosystem.
Ups & Downs
With just a quick search on Google, you’ll see a large number of growers and farmers in forums arguing which method is better, without a clear winner.
The main argument revolves around this: aquaponics draws you in with the raising of living aquatic creatures, while hydroponics offers you great precision and control.
Even though there haven’t been that many studies that compare the product created in terms of biology and overall quality, we’ll get into what we know, as well as other aspects, regarding the overall practice.
- Marketing Tool – The fact that you’re using live animals as part of the process, it creates an exciting component, bringing more customers, curious with the outcome. We’re also living in a time where “organic” is such an important word – how can a symbiosis cycle be more organic? This a marketing technique realized and put in practice by dozens of Upstart Farmers.
- Rewarding – Raising animals, be which kind they are, and growing plants are two completely different things. Even in terms of emotional investment, the first will offer you a greater and more fun experience. Not only in raising them but everything that comes with it, be it tours, educational programs, or recruit training.
- Additional Food Source – While relying on fish sales for income is only possible for large scale aquaponic farms, we can’t deny the advantage of having a natural way to bring food to your dinner table and feed your family. Who doesn’t love a nice Tilapia or a delicious catfish?
- Complex Building Process – This is probably the largest disadvantage of the whole method, as it is tricky and a bit costly to collect all the individual components you need to create the farm (typically, 30% – 50% costlier than a hydroponics farm). With the fish tank, the actual plant’s farm, the plumbing systems, and all the living components, besides cost, space can also become a bit of a problem, if you don’t have the right location. Despite all that, there are a few cheap, DIY aquaponics farm techniques that can help you. If you wish to know a bit more about that, you can click here to learn more.
- Cycle Time – Remember those bacteria we’ve talked about previously? Well to reach a state where the microbial community is healthy enough for the nutrient cycle it can take a while. So, you should wait 6 weeks before you place the fish and the seeds, and, for the first 18 months, you won’t see that many results. But trust us, after it’s stabilized, it’s a beauty!
- Less Room for Errors – We recommend studying the system thoroughly before you put it to the practice, as a few minor errors can mess up the whole farm. It’s a steep learning curve. A fish death can affect the health of the other living beings and troubleshooting has to be on point.
- No Price Surprises – This type of farms, when compared with aquaponics, have a more predictable and consistent price tag, that will depend on the size, management, and sourcing. This is important for farmers, as they’re able to create financial stability, while easily managing accounting and ordering.
- Simpler Overall – Since you’re removing a few components from an aquaponics farm, it will always be a simpler and easier process. Not only for the farmer who owns it but, if he chooses to expand, it will also be easier to train recruits.
- Easier GAP Certification – Because fish and fish waste is out of the equation, the steps to achieve a GAP certification are fewer, as the opportunities for system contamination are also fewer.
- Harder Organic Certification – It’s not all perfect. On one side, it’s easier to get the previously mentioned GAP certification, but when we’re talking about the organic one, aquaponic farmers are favored. It’s all based on the fact that hydroponics uses a nutrient solution, rarely considered an organic process.
Now, as we’ve said before, there aren’t that many studies that compare produce grown in aquaponic farms and hydroponic ones, so it’s still a fairly tough decision to make. Despite that, aquaponics has shown a small advantage in size and taste – the last one being fairly subjective.
In terms of biology, typically, plants grown in aquaponic systems have leaves poorer in phosphorus, but richer in calcium, potassium magnesium and sodium, when compared with the same species in hydroponic farms.
In a study made in 2007 by Savidov (among others) the yield of aquaponic tomatoes and mini-cucumbers were a bit larger than the hydroponic ones, but when they looked at lettuce, cucumber, and eggplant, they were very similar.
Regarding the growth rate, the same study showed that hydroponic lettuce grew faster but, because of that, had fewer nutrients and a more unbalanced physiological constitution.
The answer to the question: which system is better? It doesn’t have a clear answer. It’s up to you to analyze the ups and downs of each one and transport them to your personal case.
In spite of all that, there’s something we know for sure – when compared with regular, soil farming, these two methods have enormous advantages and can turn a farmer’s life to a better path.
Thanks for reading and get to it!