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Growing Lettuce And Fish Together Helps Denver Environment

DENVER (CBS4) - Some believe it's the future of farming because it uses only a fraction of the water.

"The fish waste provides the nutrients to the plants," explained J.D. Sawyer, owner of Colorado Aquaponics.

Sawyer and his wife Tawnya have created a system of grow beds and holding tanks where fish and garden greens thrive in a symbiotic relationship.

"They grow much faster," Tawnya said as she admired a tray of basil.

Aquaponics is the combination of two farming methods -- aquaculture (where aquatic species are grown in a controlled environment) and hydroponics (where plants are raised without soil).

So in a dilapidated greenhouse in an aging industrial area of North Denver, the couple has put together their demonstration project to educate the public.

Water circulates in a closed system through both the gravel filled plant beds and the fish filled tanks. As J.D. explains it, excrement from the fish actually feeds the garden greens. Water gets filtered and cleaned up as it moves moving through the plant beds. That helps keep the fish healthy.

What's significant is how much water is conserved, especially in a semi-arid climate like that in Denver.

Aquaponics uses just 10 percent of the water typically needed for irrigated farming. There are no pesticides and no chemical fertilizers.

It's a small wonder a local café owner is eager to buy fresh greens from Colorado Aquaponics, especially now during cold weather.

"It's awesome," said Libby Birky, co-founder of SAME on East Colfax.

Birky took a delivery of hand-picked basil and lettuce.

"The flavor is fantastic, it's great to have the fresh produce when we're not getting it from anywhere else," she said.

The fish -- including tilapia and trout -- are also being raised as table fare.

Some Denver restaurants have expressed interest because they know it's the freshest fish in town. But the current operation is too small to support commercial fish sales.

Is this really the future of farming? The Sawyers say it is.

"The idea is we want to build larger versions of these systems here where we can have thousands of fish, thousands of plants," JD explained.

The couple now is looking for financial backers to help them scale up to a commercial sized operation.

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- Written by Paul Day


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