Aquaponics project another step in food sustainability

The Nation is continuing to make strides in community gardens and health and wellness. Continuing in that same direction is the Environmental and Natural Resources department.

Craig Walker, Environmental Specialist for ENR, received $95,000 from the Nation to begin a two-year aquaponics project to grow basic greens, several types of lettuce, experiment with heirloom seeds and farm fish.

“We’re going to try and work toward squash, corn, strawberries and a few other things. I’ve got an actual list of plants Osage people used and we’re going to try to incorporate some of that,” Walker said. “Everything that we grow in the 2-year pilot project we’re donating to Title VI and the elderly. That’s something once I get everything going I’m going to work with Sue Slinkard (Title VI director) and how she wants to utilize that, whether it be on their buffet or gift baskets.”

What is aquaponics? It is a four-step system that uses a water recirculating process to grow and harvest plants and farm fish, according to Urban Organics, Growing Power Inc. Using wastewater from the fish, the water is pumped from the fish to an upper tiered gravel bed where the bacteria breaks down the impurities. Nitrogen is left in the water to feed the plants growing on lower level tiers, which further filter the water. Every nine months the fish used, usually tilapia but some growers have begun to use yellow perch, are ready to be harvested.

Walker’s project will be ran at the Pawhuska Business Strategy Center in a 2,200 square foot bay room. Walker’s aquaponics system is 1,600 square feet.

Currently, the Communities of Excellence department has a small aquaponics system in their office.

“We’ve had lettuce and okra, you can grow just about anything as long as it doesn’t need a strong root base,” said Gail Boe, Communities of Excellence director. “You can grow tomatoes, mint, basil, lettuce and that’s what we were growing. I think it is fantastic.”

Boe said her department started the small aquaponics system in January and through many trials and errors, have found that using Pawhuska water is harmful to the fish but they’ve been able to grow lettuce, tomatoes, mint, basil and okra.

Last year, during the Red Eagle administration, a healthy food initiative group was formed by Red Eagle, then-Speaker Raymond Red Corn and then-Congressman Daniel Boone that consisted of Boe, then-WIC Director Renee Harris, then-Strategic Planning and Grants Management Director Jennifer Tiger, Head Start Director Denise Keene and Walker.

The group traveled to the Chickasaw Nation to tour their hydroponic gardening system and Boe said it was amazing to see a Native nation feeding their own people with the food they’ve grown. After the trip the group had several meetings and Walker introduced the idea for aquaponics. She said Walker showed them a YouTube video of a man who had bought a three-story building and on each floor was nothing but aquaponic systems.

“The things they can do with aquaponics is just amazing. Like here in Osage County, we got a lot of rock, it’s not always friendly to growing gardens,” she said. “I think the whole thing on the food sustainability and what the chief has all of us working on with the Bird Creek Farms, the possibility the Osage Nation growing it’s own crop, not only for departments, but to be a major supplier for the county. Of course that’s a ways down the road but the possibilities are there, we just got to take advantage of it.”

Some facts on acquaponics according to Homestyle Aquaponics include:

  • It uses 90 percent less water than soil-based gardening
  • It is four to six times as productive on a square foot basis as soil-based gardening
  • It does not rely on the availability of good soil, so it can be set up anywhere
  • It is free from weeds, watering and fertilizing concerns
  • It enables fish farming

Walker said he first got the idea for the project after he attended a training with the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin and witnessed one of their tribal members having a successful aquaponics project in his basement, growing fish and plants year round.

“So I did some research on the project and thought it was something we could use here and since we’re trying to increase food production and distribution in the Osage I thought this project could work,” Walker said.

He said he hopes to use Americorps workers, college interns, tribal members who want to learn and volunteer. The Pawhuska Business Strategy Center has classrooms, which he hopes to educate tribal members about the project and teach them hands-on skills to use. Oklahoma State University will be helping with the project as well, he said.