Aquaponics a new idea in health care environment

The aquaponics farm at the Mental Health Center of Denver.

JD Sawyer
Founder, Colorado Aquaponics and CEO, The Acquaponic Source

It wasn’t long ago that we either grew our own food or knew the farmer who grew it. However, in recent decades, small local farms have been virtually wiped out by an industrial and corporate controlled food system that has destroyed our natural resources, depleted our soils, sprayed toxic chemicals and has genetically modified our food in an effort to feed the masses. It’s also well known that most of our food travels over 2,000 miles from its origin to our plate. A tremendous amount of packaging, processing, energy and carbon emissions goes into distributing food to consumers. By the time the food gets to us, even healthy vegetables and greens have lost much of their nutritional value. Conventional food distribution systems emit five to 17 times more CO2 than local and regional food production and if that wasn’t enough, commercial agriculture is the largest consumer of water worldwide.

How can we protect our natural resources and grow more nutritious, chemical-free food while also reducing the transportation? One method, which is getting a lot of attention both regionally and worldwide, is aquaponics. Aquaponics is the raising of fish and vegetables together in a soil-less recirculating water system. Fish provide a natural source of nutrients (fertilizer) for the plants. The plants along with naturally occurring bacteria help to clean the water for the fish. This symbiotic system mimics nature’s own patterns, allowing the byproduct from one species to help grow another.

An aquaponic farm can be located near consumers and can virtually eliminate unnecessary “food miles” while providing the freshest, most nutritious food for communities year-round. Farms can produce significantly more produce per square foot than soil-based agriculture and can be developed in underutilized spaces such as vacant lots, warehouses or rooftops. Other substantial benefits of aquaponic farming include significantly less water consumption than soil-based agriculture, no harmful pesticides and fertilizers (this is a natural ecosystem), compost for soil replenishment, fodder for animals and livestock, sustainable farm-raised fish, year-round food production, local jobs, education and volunteer and therapeutic opportunities. It’s also worth noting that growing food directly on site provides a degree of resilience and self-reliance from potential disruptions in the food distribution network that could lead to food shortages. An aquaponic farm contributes to and strengthens the local food shed.

If you believe in the notion that “you get out what you put in” then it would stand to reason that food is the first and most important input toward living a healthier life. It is for that reason, as well as the many benefits noted previously, that aquaponic farming in controlled greenhouse environments should be strongly considered as an integral part of any community development looking to promote nutrition, health and wellness.

One such farm is the Dahlia Campus’ aquaponic greenhouse located in the middle of Northeast Park Hill. The 5,400-square-foot greenhouse is part of a 4-acre campus owned and operated by the Mental Health Center of Denver, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit providing health and wellness services to the surrounding community. With the understanding that access to healthy food is foundational to creating healthier, more vibrant communities, MHCD had the foresight to add sustainable food production to its campus, which was developed in 2015. The aquaponic farm produces a wide variety of healthy greens alongside tilapia and catfish that are sold to local residents through the neighborhood farmers’ market along with sales to local markets and restaurants.

Integrating a small aquaponic farm onto a hospital campus, mental health facility, senior living community or any type of sustainable community development allows residents and employees to not only have direct access to healthier food options but also the opportunity to participate in growing their own food. Being actively involved in growing the fish and plants would be particularly relevant in senior living communities. Residents who are looking to stay active, have a green thumb or just want to enjoy the tranquility and beauty of a greenhouse environment would greatly enjoy having a solar aquaponic greenhouse on their property.

From an investment perspective, an aquaponic greenhouse represents a unique way to distinguish a property while adding tremendous value for a relatively small investment. Complete aquaponic greenhouses designed to meet local building codes can range from $50 to $100 per sf to build. Aquaponic greenhouses, when properly designed and managed, also can generate revenue and profits from the sale of fish and plants along with the potential for supplemental income through agrotourism. The greenhouses and aquaponic systems also are extremely scalable and can be tailored to best fit existing or new developments, construction budgets and production goals.

For developers in the health care and senior housing industries, who are looking to create a lasting impact in their community, distinguish their properties and create positive change for the environment, adding an aquaponic greenhouse is a win-win proposition.

Featured in the July issue of Health Care Properties Quarterly

Edited by the Colorado Real Estate Journal staff.