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Aquaponics uses about 90 percent less water than traditional farming, according to ECOLIFE, which recently opened its upgraded Aquaponics Innovation Center. Courtesy photo
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Nonprofit sees aquaponics as solution to climate, water and food crisis

ESCONDIDO — It’s a piece of farmland nestled in the northern edge of Escondido which would be easy to miss by sojourners going south on Highway 15 toward San Diego and those going north toward wine country in Temecula.

Yet those who visit will come across what’s hailed by the organization ECOLIFE Conservation — a nonprofit organization which owns the property and also has an administrative office in downtown Escondido — as a case study of what global society needs to cure a triple set of related crises. Those are climate change, globally unsustainable food production practices and water shortages — crises which most ecologists say have fed on one another to create a perfect storm of sorts.

The solution? ECOLIFE Conservation says a big part of it could be aquaponics and to exemplify this agricultural production process in-action, it has opened shop on a new aquaponics greenhouse, which is essentially self-sustaining.

Which begs the natural follow up question? That is, what is aquaponics?

“Aquaponics is a sustainable method of food production combining aquaculture (raising aquatic animals) and hydroponics (cultivating plants in water with added nutrients),” explains Ecolife’s website. “In this circulating system, nitrifying bacteria converts fish waste into a natural fertilizer for plants, plants take up those nutrients and return clean water to the fish.”

In a press release disseminated about its newly upgraded Aquaponics Innovation Center, ECOLIFE pointed to some of the characteristics which keep the machine humming and self-sustaining on its new aquaponics system.

“At its test and research facility in Escondido, ECOLIFE designed and built a 900 ft 2 system capable of growing 333 lbs. of tilapia, 1,600 heads of lettuce or a combination of lettuce and high-value tomato and cucumber crops in a recirculating system,” the organization explained. “The innovative design features solar powered mechanical filtration, mineralization tanks, and back up power to keep water circulating in the event of a power outage.”

Its newly remodeled aquaponics system and the greenhouse which oversees it cost about $13,000, said Kait Cole, aquaponics program manager for ECOLIFE, in an interview with The Coast News at ECOLIFE’s newly revamped aquaponics farm.

ECOLIFE says aquaponics uses about 90 percent less water than traditional farming and agricultural practices. Beyond just a land conservation, water saving and sustainable farming practice, however, ECOLIFE also believes that with more uptake, aquaponics can also help chip away at the climate change crisis.

Lettuce grown at ECOLIFE Conservation’s aquaponics farm in Escondido hangs inside its greenhouse. Photo by Steve Horn

“In regards to climate change, the farming industry creates a lot of emissions through tractors, pesticides, overuses of water,” Cole said. “With aquaponics, you also cannot use any sort of harmful pesticides because they will kill your fish, so there’s a guarantee that you’re going to have great natural produce because you can’t use anything that’s going to be harmful, otherwise it will be detrimental to your system and the health of your fish.”

For its aquaponics system, ECOLIFE secured a patent form the U.S. Trade and Patent Organization in March 2015.

After growing its food through the aquaponics technique, ECOLIFE donates it to various nonprofit organizations. They include Community Interfaith, Produce Good and Produce for Patriots, all of which are organizations dedicated to getting food to low-income individuals and food insecure people.

The organization has existed for 15 years and much of its work, beyond its in-house aquaponics system, centers around bringing miniature aquaponics systems and educational curriculum to schools throughout San Diego County and indeed, nationwide, with its Eco Cycle system in place in all 50 states. Two schools within inland North County have them, too, said Cole: Madison Middle School in San Marcos and Twin Oaks Continuation High School in Vista. These systems can also be purchased online for household usage.

In total, ECOLIFE has says it has reached out to 122,020 students and distributed 658 aquaponics kits in classrooms nationwide. Of those, 87 are situated in North County, with 15 in Vista schools, two in San Marcos schools and 38 within Escondido schools.

And in 10 schools throughout San Diego County, too, it has helped create larger Eco-Gardens which are bigger than the Eco-Cycle kits and more akin to the aquaponics system they have in-house in Escondido.

“The benefits of these project-based, sustainable gardens are countless because they give students the chance to explore some of the world’s most pressing issues revolving around our environment and food system,” ECOLIFE explains of its Eco-Gardens program on its website. “In addition, tending to aquaponic systems increases students’ comprehension of scientific concepts and provides empowerment for student leadership. Projects like the ECO-Garden promote the development of real-world job skills and critical thinking which meet the criteria for the implementation of Next Generation Science Standards.”

Beyond its work in the area of aquaponics, ECOLIFE also works in Africa and Mexico to help implement the usage of fuel efficient stoves and leads ecotourism trips to both of those places, as well. Throughout November, ECOLIFE has volunteer days planned for Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays in which those interested in the new Aquaponics Innovation Center can come check it out and do some work in the greenhouse, as well.