Aquaponic Gardening

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Just a couple weeks ago we experienced a somewhat harsh freeze. I know that most people’s reaction to that is ” a freeze, but aren’t you in Florida?!”  We are, however our north central location often sees the thermometer dipping into freezing temps overnight and as I often like to joke, we are nestled in the mountains of Florida after all, or as close as it gets at 220ft above sea level.  I seriously doubt that it really contributes to our colder temps when in all likelihood our little pocket of Brooksville just is its own little microclimate and typically sees harsher temps then the rest of the area.

All buttoned up for a cold night

Like many farmers, we spent the night up keeping an eye on our crops. For us that means rotating the heater between the hoop houses and keeping the rocket mass heater fired up in the main greenhouse. All was fine in the greenhouse and our tomatoes and cukes, our most delicate of crops fared well at 22 degrees above the outside temps with the help of the mass heater and an additional hoop. Unfortunately it was not the same for the outside hoop houses. Although well buttoned up for the cold night and rotating the heater often, it was still no match for the 6 and a half hours in the low twenties. Even the pipes to our home froze and didn’t thaw until nearly 10 am when it was finally above freezing. Fortunately no lasting damage there but our tender lettuces ranging in size from a few weeks old to mature beautiful heads ready for harvest froze as well. We watched and waited as they thawed hoping the damage wasn’t too severe. As the day warmed up though, the tender tips began to show those inevitable signs of tip burn and by days end our best estimate was that over a 1000 heads had been damaged.

It was only days before nearly 70 students would descend on our farm for our Green Acre Aquaponic Farming and our Basics courses so not all was a loss. At least instead of using good product for our hands on harvesting sessions, students learned how to harvest using the damaged lettuce. Each day we selected a raft full of beautiful but damaged lettuces and students learned proper food safety harvesting techniques for Aquaponic produce, clean up and then planting. Our chickens were the lucky recipients of those lettuces as a different group made it though the rotation each day.

While here, one of our teaching partners and fellow farmer JD Sawyer told us of his recent discovery. They had contacted the Denver zoo and inquired about selling them some damaged product from their farm and the zoo had said yes. Immediately my wheels were turning as I thought of all the zoos, habitats and tourist attractions in our area and planned on contacting them as soon as our classes ended. That first week I began calling and one of my first calls was received by Caroline Pace, the Commissary Director at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo is a Tampa landmark and a home for more than 1,500 animals from Florida and similar habitats.  As a center for education and endangered species, the zoo features a Native Florida Wildlife Center and a manatee hospital and was also named the #1 zoo in the nation by Parent’s Magazine.

I shared with Caroline our story and that the lettuce was still in great condition with the exception of the damaged tips. It would be fine for animals but not acceptable for our clientele. Caroline immediately asked how quickly we could get it there! There was not even a need to explain the benefits of our aquaponically grown produce as Caroline already knew that it meant clean, chem free produce and was happy to be receiving it. Soon we were harvesting over 1100 heads of lettuce and I was on my way to the zoo with hundreds of pounds of green and red and colorful speckled lettuces and Romaines in our mobile walk in cooler.                                                  

Green Acre Greens for the zoo!

It so happens that this freeze coincided with the Red Tide that had been affecting our coastal waterways.  Red Tide typically affects the Gulf coast of Florida and according to Wikipedia is the result of high concentrations of Karenia brevis, a microscopic marine algae that occurs naturally but normally not in harmful concentrations. When a bloom occurs and the bacteria cause a murky reddish tone to the water, its toxin paralyzes the central nervous system of fish and they die from being unable to breathe.  Unfortunately it has similar effects on manatees which lose their coordination and the ability to swim and then can no longer upright themselves to surface and breathe. This outbreak has already killed 174 of the gentle “sea cows” as they are commonly called, reported the Miami Herald and the numbers are likely to rise as there’s no indication as to when the Red Tide will end.

Florida manatee (image courtesy of Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo)


The Manatee Hospital at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo frequently treats sick or injured Manatees and now were nearly at their max for the ailing creatures.  Caroline hosted me on a behind the scenes tour where they were currently nursing 11 sick manatees.  She explained that along with the paralysis, the effects also leaves them feeling ill and lethargic and somewhat like experiencing a bad hangover.  The specialized tanks had platforms that could raise the Manatees to help them surface.  Along with a dedicated staff that sometimes would have to help hold the creature’s large head out of the water to breathe, these 1300lb animals were slowly recovering.    

 Manatee feeding on Hyacinth, its normal diet (image courtesy of Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo)

Manatees typically eat over 60 different types of vegetation including grasses and algae but while in the zoo’s care, their primary diet was lettuce and mostly Romaine.  They can eat as much as 10% of their body weight or close to 130lbs for an adult manatee which equates to quite a lot of lettuce!  Caroline explained how that manatees bottom feed and pointed out the feeders made of PVC pipe that helped hold the lettuce on the bottom of the large tanks. The water was wonderfully clear and Caroline verified it was due to the huge filtration tanks and system that loomed behind us as the manatees required extensive filtration to provide for their water quality needs. It was amazing and of course the aquapon in me wondered how aquaponics could play a part in the fresh water manatee habitat there.

After my tour, I followed Caroline to a place where I could get my truck and trailer turned around and be on my way.  We talked a little more and I let Caroline know I’d be sure to call if we ever had more product not up to our quality standards for our customers.  Although the freeze was an unfortunate event for our farm, we were thrilled to be able to help several sick Manatees with our aquaponically grown, chemical free, nutrient filled Green Acre lettuce and to foster a relationship between our local zoo and our aquaponic family farm.


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Comment by Vlad Jovanovic on March 22, 2013 at 3:40pm

Sorry to hear about your crop loss Gina, but it sure sounds like you turned it into a sweet gain for both your trainees and those poor manatees  Nice!

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