Could this be the future of farming? 

Green Sky Growers shows the way with a self-contained aquaponics system on a Winter Garden rooftop

The elevator glides smoothly to the top floor. The doors open to reveal a hidden magic garden, where parsley towers 12 feet high, celery plants float in Styrofoam and tomato vines 30 feet long snake their way to the ceiling. A moving carousel of cilantro, mint and purple basil rotates in front of a photo sensor, triggering a spray of water pumped from the tanks below.

“The unique thing is we’re growing all of this with fish,” says Ryan Chatterson, facilities supervisor for Green Sky Growers, a 3,000-square-foot rooftop greenhouse in Winter Garden. The combination vegetable garden, fish farm and science lab is the brainchild of the late Bert Roper, a Winter Garden citrus farmer, entrepreneur and philanthropist. Roper enlisted the help of a former Epcot hydroponics expert to help him design and build his garden of the future.

Rainwater is collected and stored in a 15,000-gallon cistern, which supplies water to several large tanks containing hundreds of tilapia and striped bass. The wastewater from the fish tanks is filtered to remove solids and then used to irrigate the plants with nutrient-rich water. The plants absorb the nutrients, thereby “cleaning” the water, which is then pumped back into the fish tank. This recirculating system is known as aquaponics, which combines aquaculture (fish farming) with hydroponics (growing vegetables in water) using the same water source.

Relying on the symbiotic relationship between tilapia and tomatoes to put dinner on the table might sound like mad science, but the technology has been used since ancient Aztec times. It’s been popular in Australia for years as a way of coping with drought and poor soil conditions. In the U.S., Will Allen, founder of the Milwaukee nonprofit Growing Power, has been experimenting with aquaponics as a way to improve food security for decades.

“Even though the science has been out there for a while, it’s only been in the last two years that people are saying maybe this is the next big thing in agriculture,” Chatterson says, explaining that competition for water rights has become so fierce that water is considered by many to be the new oil. As agricultural land and water become scarce, finding new ways to grow crops with a smaller carbon footprint is crucial to our food security. Green Sky’s operation relies on rainwater, and uses 95 percent less water than traditional farming. The rooftop location, built to withstand hurricane-force winds, takes advantage of unused space. A sophisticated climate control system also makes Green Sky’s facility unique.

Standing in a row of Romanesco broccoli, miniature cucumbers and heirloom chocolate cherry tomatoes, Chatterson explained that specialty veggies sell for three to four times the price of their regular counterparts. “On a small-farm scale, unique items are where you make money,” Chatterson says. Green Sky has experimented with more than 350 different crops, from dinosaur kale to dragonfruit – all produced without the use of chemical pesticides.

But it’s not all about making money. Aquaponic farming can be used to address famine in arid countries and provide an alternative farming method on islands where land and fresh water are scarce. “We set up a large one in an orphanage in Haiti to feed the kids,” Chatterson says.

Green Sky sells its produce to area restaurants, at the neighboring Seeds Natural Market and at the Winter Garden farmers market. Chatterson can’t keep up with demand. “We need a couple of more roofs,” he jokes. “We have a lot more requests than we can handle.”

AlFresco Restaurant, located below the greenhouse on the ground floor of the Garden Building, brings new meaning to the “farm to table” concept. Fresh herbs, lettuce and tomatoes are often delivered daily to the restaurant, and tilapia is brought down on ice 20 minutes after harvesting. “It really surprises people when they hear where the fish comes from,” says AlFresco’s chef, Rob Gioia.

The close proximity to Green Sky allows AlFresco added flexibility in their menu. Gioia tells the story of a customer who really wanted a Caesar salad, but the kitchen was out of romaine. So, “I went upstairs and picked the lettuce myself. The customer loved it.”

Since Green Sky is able to closely control the climate in the greenhouse, they are able to extend the growing season and time the harvest of fish and produce to meet customers’ demands with peak-of-the-season products. “They can pretty much grow anything we ask them to,” says Gioia, who obtains specialty herbs like cocoa mint and lemon thyme from Green Sky and often plans his specials around what his upstairs neighbors are harvesting.

As impressive as Green Sky’s operation is, a state-of-the-art facility isn’t necessary. “You could go to an empty parking lot and set up a farm within a month,” Chatterson says. “It’s really easy. You can do it anywhere.” At home, a patch of dead grass or an unused cement patio could provide a bountiful harvest. Sylvia Bernstein’s website, aquaponicgardening.com, is a great place for beginners to start.

“Traditional farmers are scared,” Chatterson says. “But they have to look forward. This is going to be big.”

More by Kirsten Harrington

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