Gavin Vitt is the proud owner of 1,100 fish, give or take.
He knows better than to get attached to any of the 20-pound tangerine-colored koi or the blue and albino tilapia, for one day he'll either sell them to a local restaurant or donate them to a friend's giant koi pond.
No, he's not an aquarist. He's the owner of Daily Harvest Aquaponics. He uses fish as a nutrient source to raise leafy greens indoors, including curly kale, bok choy, eight types of lettuce, basil and culantro, a cousin to cilantro.
If you're a regular patron of dining establishments, chances are good you've ingested his finished product. His customers include Colorado College, The Broadmoor, Burrowing Owl, 2South Food + Wine Bar, Loyal Coffee and Rooster's House of Ramen.
"We use about 10 percent of the water traditional farmers use," Vitt said, "so being in Colorado, that was a selling point for me. Last year we harvested over 49,000 heads of lettuce."
Aquaponics isn't a new fad. It can be traced to prehistoric times, when the Aztecs grew plants on rafts with fish floating underneath. Modern-day research started about 40 years ago, when the practice of aquaculture was developed to create cleaner water with plants. It's grown into a fully integrated system with fish and plants.
"Growth in the industry in the last five years has been exponential because of the benefits of technology," said Rebecca Nelson, co-founder, co-owner and chief branding officer of Nelson and Pade Inc., a company that provides full-service solutions in aquaponics. "We have had people from over 100 countries travel to do the (master) class. It demonstrates demand around the world for information for people to get started in aquaponics. Systems have shipped to almost 30 countries around the world."
Vitt was on a plane in 2013 when he read an in-flight magazine article about repurposing industrial warehouse space for aquaponics. Serendipitously, he was trying to sell a large building east of town that originally held his family's Lawn Doctor franchise, which he'd bought from his parents in 2001.
The knowledge he'd gleaned from running a lawn-care business served as a foundation for the new enterprise. He ordered the equipment, took classes at Nelson and Pade and Colorado Aquaponics, and got busy putting the system together in 2014.
"I thought it was fantastic, too good to be true," he said. "I could grow things. I kind of knew about the nutrient content. And I'm an Aquarius, so I know water."
How it works
The first thing you see in Vitt's warehouse are the unblinking eyeballs of fish pressed up to the windows of tubs that resemble oversized children's swimming pools. Mostly tilapia cruise through the six 500-gallon tanks, though often a mammoth koi will push his way through the crowd to get a gander at the nonaquatic life.
And you wonder: Are these happy fish?
"I think they are," said Vitt. "They seem to be, compared to the majority of stories I hear about tilapia. It's the most imported fish into the states. The majority of it comes from China, Indonesia and Central America. They've got chickens on top of the tanks, and the chickens naturally feed the tilapia, right into the water (with excrement). They're not treated well."
Four smaller tanks make up the fish nursery, where baby tilapia and koi swim, waiting for the day they're moved to the big boy tanks. They provide nutrients for a small selection of plants.
After admiring the cold-water creatures, you enter a second large space filled with the main growing area, displaying rows and rows of leafy, green-filled raft beds. Everything starts from seed here, and you can see the growth progression, moving from south to north along the raft beds. They progressively get bigger and fuller as they get pushed down toward the harvest section, where Vitt plucks enough greenery to fill each day's orders.
"Right now we're about six weeks from seed to harvest," he said.
His setup also features three conical-bottomed clarifiers, two mineralization tanks, one bio-reactor and one degassing tank. Water moves from the tanks into one of the clarifiers, where the solid waste collects in the cone. The filtered water is moved through the mineralization tanks, where fine solids are collected. The water then travels to the bio-reactor, where naturally occurring beneficial bacteria convert ammonia from the fish waste to nitrites, then nitrates, the substance that nourishes the plants. After the water passes through the growing area, it's filtered again, heated to 72 degrees and pumped back into the fish tanks.
"The fish and the plants most people know about," said Vitt, "but there is a third key component, beneficial bacteria, that makes the ecosystem happy. Without equal happy parts of the three components, your system's not going to work."
While some aquaponic operations are a closed loop system, meaning no water is added, Vitt's is recirculating. He loses water due to Colorado's dryness and because the plants and fish use it as a drinking source. Municipal water is added to the system, and filters remove the chlorine.
His farm also isn't certified organic; instead he calls it all-natural because they grow using an all-natural fish source and use few pesticides. Sometimes they do need to control the aphid population, and when the ladybugs he buys from local nurseries don't do the trick, he resorts to chemicals.
"There's a huge paper trail involved," he said about the organic certification process. "It's $4,000 a year as well as several different inspections. We invite our customers out here, and they don't care. If we were to try to sell to Whole Foods Market or Natural Grocers, they want that organic certification."
Hundreds of aquaponics farms are running throughout the country, and Nelson expects that number to grow tenfold over the next five years. It's an all-natural and sustainable way of farming fresh fish and vegetables without producing discharge.
"You don't use pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers," Nelson said. "Yet at the same time, you can grow an extraordinary amount of food in a very small space. When you combine that with a controlled environment, you can create this 365 days a year."
The method won't replace the traditional ways of growing field corn, rice, potatoes and the like, but the amount of fresh vegetables and fish it can produce means aquaponics is the future.
"In 1 acre of space, using traditional farming methods and if you're very good at what you do, you could get about 80,000 heads of lettuce in a year," said Nelson. "In the same space, in our system, you can grow over half a million heads of lettuce plus 40 pounds of fish. We don't have the land we used to have or the resources. Fresh water isn't everywhere, but the need for high-quality food is."
Aquaponics isn't just for business owners like Vitt. Regular folks can get into the game to create a food supply for their families.
"It can be very successful," said Nelson, "but you definitely want a proven design and people to support you through the process."