Frank Zarauskas' aquaponics solution for feeding the world

Posted Monday, Jan. 21, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Frank Zarauskas wants to feed the world, or at least to show the world a better way to feed itself, through aquaponics.

Zarauskas was one of the original vendors this year in the inaugural season of the Haslet Farmer's Market, offering his aquaponically grown vegetables and herbs, the "Sassy Sprouts" grown by his wife, Shawn Mitchell, and the backyard aquaponics growing systems Zarauskas designed himself.

Standing outside the double-wide greenhouse on his property just north of Boyd in Wise County, Zarauskas indicates his own aquaponics farm with a wave of his arm.

"I want to wrap this all up and send this whole system - I mean, the idea of this system - to those poor countries, where they live in the desert or can't grow crops for whatever reason," he says. "With this kind of set-up they can feed thousands of people. And they can do it without pollution."

"This system" Zarauskas refers to is an arrangement of tanks, pumps, filters and drains he has designed that produces, he says, uncommonly flavorful vegetables, sprouts and herbs that are rich in vitamins and nutrients as well as farm-raised tilapia. It is, Zarauskas believes, the solution to world hunger, pollution and so much more.

Hydroponics, a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions in water rather than soil, has been around since the 1600s and started to become more popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Hydroponics has proven to not only be practical but to also have some real advantages over conventional horticultural methods. For one thing, hydroponic systems can be used, a Zarauskas says, in places where in-ground agriculture and gardening are not feasible. And hydroponic systems offer the possibility of a much higher crop yield with much less pollution.

But, Zarauskas says, his aquaponics system takes hydroponics a step further, adding the tilapia into the mix and thus increasing the nutrients in the water and creating another food source with the fish.

Zarauskas said he has been "messing around with fish" since he was about 7 years old. For a while, he had a thriving business breeding exotic fish such as Japanese koi, and other fish such as guppies for pet stores and individuals with fish tanks and ponds. But when the economy went south, so did his business.

Then his own battle with diabetes knocked him off his feet, quite literally, for a couple of years. Zarauskas used that time to cruise the Internet, researching new ways to improve his own health. Information he found regarding foods, especially tilapia, imported from other countries and regarding genetically modified foods "just made me sick," he said. "I started thinking, why not start my own business here? So I started trying to develop a way every family can grow their own healthy vegetables and fish."

While his personal system includes numerous fish tanks, pumps and growing tanks, Zarauskas has designed a smaller system that can fit in a backyard, or even in a garage. The system, made from a plastic IBC tote (a plastic Intermediate Bulk Container encased in an aluminum framework, used for transporting large volumes of water) , includes a shallow upper tank, in which the vegetables grow, sitting atop a deeper lower tank, which holds the tilapia. Nutrient-rich water from the lower tank is pumped into the upper tank to feed the plants. Then it drains through a filter which cleans, purifies and re-oxygenates the water as it returns to the lower tank.

Zarauskas sells his backyard aquaponics systems, which are displayed at Coolhouse Hydroponics in Fort Worth, for $1,500, and while he acknowledges "that is a lot of money," it is still only about half the cost of similar systems being sold elsewhere, he says adding, "And I come out and set it all up for you, and I will bring you the (already purified and oxygenated) water."

That part about the water is important, Zarauskas notes, because using untreated tap water would kill the fish, and it can take six to eight weeks to adequately treat tap water and prepare it for use. "When I deliver the water, you can add the fish right away," he notes.

And while the initial outlay seems steep, "the system pays for itself in no time. Think of how much you pay at the grocery store for peppers, for lettuce, for whatever. You will be saving all that money, and you will be getting food that is healthier for you."

There are other advantages, Zarauskas says. For example, the backyard systems he sells offer an excellent way for older people to continue gardening, either for food or as a hobby, and to do it without the bending and kneeling necessary in traditional gardens.

The systems also are perfect for school environments. He says that he already has sold one system to a teacher. And he has an arrangement with Fort Worth's Dunbar Middle School in which students visit his greenhouse to learn how to use the aquaponics system, and then put their new knowledge to use operating the aquaponics system Zarauskas installed at their school.

"And I teach classes here for people who want to learn more about aquaponics," Zarauskas says. Zarauskas has worked to make his aquaponics systems - both his own and the ones he sells - as healthful, as natural and as eco-friendly as possible. He uses no pesticides, instead stocking his greenhouse with spiders to keep the plant-eating bugs under control. The water is recycled and reused. The plants are fertilized with Zarauskas' own, homemade, all-natural fertilizer - Frank's Rocket Fuel. And the fish both enrich the nutrient mix of the water and are a food source in themselves.

The backyard systems Zarauskas sells are smaller, less complicated versions of the large-scale operation he has developed for himself. The tanks in his greenhouse currently house close to 8,000 baby tilapia and 2,000 to 2,500 of the larger fish, including breeding fish he uses to increase his stock. Right now, the growing tanks in his greenhouse hold tomato plants, Swiss chard, mint, basil, lettuce and more. But he hopes to double the size of his operation, as soon as he finds someone willing to invest in his dream.

Zarauskas says the plan is to build a second greenhouse, the same size as the existing one and immediately adjacent to it. He will install a fish pond the length of the greenhouse down the center of each one, and then line the fish tanks with growing tanks.

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