NOBLEFORD, Alta. — Justin Den Toom stands in a vast building under construction, as the sun shines brightly through the plastic-lined roof.
The whine of a saw splits the air on this day, but soon the building will be full of lush plants floating placidly in fish-fertilized water.
Den Toom operates Current Prairie Fisherman Corp., with his father, Klaas Den Toom. The operation located west of Nobleford produces tilapia for the fresh, live fish markets in Calgary and Vancouver, and has been doing so since 2008.
But aquaponics are in its future.
The greenhouse under construction is about two acres in size. It is divided into several bays, which will house a floating raft system carrying plants, probably vegetables or herbs.
The plants will be fertilized with waste from the fish once it has been filtered and its nutrients are made soluble by micro-organisms.
“We’d hoped to be growing plants by now, but now it looks like it will be a little while yet,” Den Toom said in early October.
The delays are in part related to the unique nature of the operation and the plans the family has for ventilation and relationship to the tilapia operation next door.
Nick Savidov, aquaponics expert and senior researcher at Lethbridge College, said if anyone can make a commercial success out of this new aquaponics venture, it is Klaas Den Toom, who has already been successful at pig farming and fish farming.
“His facility will be the first where even the carbon dioxide produced by micro-organisms and fish will be used by plants,” said Savidov.
Recirculation of air will be key to limited energy costs, said Justin Den Toom during a tour of the facility.
“The idea is to grow year round and so, in the winter time when it’s cold out, all your air is already pre-warmed a little bit and we can add heat to it. But the really big benefit to it is … we’re going to be able to raise our CO2 levels.”
A co-generation system is being established using natural gas and some of the heat from the fish operation. Fairly deep water will allow a constant temperature at the plants’ root zone and the suffused, even light is expected to promote rapid growth.
Fish production is a given. The operation already produces about 10,000 pounds of fish each week, which are shipped live. However, the types of plants that will be produced in the new greenhouse are yet to be determined because the family is still identifying a market.
“The idea is to develop a market for a certain crop. That’s going to fill this area,” said Den Toom as he stood in one of the empty bays and pointed elsewhere.
“Then we’ll harvest on that side and plant on (this) side” to ensure steady production.
Den Toom said his father has researched other aquaponics operations and has found that in many cases, either the greenhouse side or the fish side work well, but seldom both. He plans to mitigate risk.
“We want to use the benefits from both but we also want it to be separate, so if ever anything happens to our fish for whatever reason, we could keep going on with the greenhouse regardless.”