By Erika Webb
It doesn't take tens of thousands of dollars to start a productive farm. Ken Kruckenberg, Sheryl Manche and son Kirk McLaine have proof in their backyard, and they share their simple approach with others.
Three years ago the family moved to Osteen and bought property along State Road 415. Ms. Manche, a relentless researcher, had become intrigued with the idea of breeding Tilapia. She wanted to start with a simple backyard project and end with a commercial business.
Osteen Organics quickly became a reality.
The farm is certified through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program -- "no easy feat," Ms. Manche said.
Four 2,000 gallon tanks -- above ground pools -- and a simple clarification/filtration system comprised of recycled plastic drums from juice factories, PVC pipe and pumps keep mature Tilapia thriving.
That's in the greenhouse constructed with four by four posts, metal bars and plastic sheeting. In the barn are tanks of "fry" waiting to reach maturity.
Osteen Organics also grows herbs, vegetables and wheat grass, some of which is distributed to the retail market and sold online.
Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. Through a symbiotic process, the plants feed the fish and fish feed the plants.
Nutrient-rich wastewater from fish tanks is converted through bacterial action on nitrates serving as a food source for the vegetables and herbs growing hydroponically in grow beds. Bacteria act as the carburetor of the aquaponics system, which takes otherwise unusable fish waste and creates a near-perfect fertilizer, Ms. Manche said.
The plant roots, immersed in nutrient-rich effluent water, are a biological filter and clean out ammonia, which is toxic to the fish. Oxygenated water is recirculated and returned to the fish tanks. The continuous cycle is accomplished through a series of pipes, irrigation fittings, stands and water pumps.
"We mirrored the University of Virgin Islands' system," Ms. Manche said. "But we used all recycled, low-cost supplies and instead of a $10,000 clarifier, Ken engineered one for $150."
She said once it's established, the aquaponic system essentially runs by itself.
It takes less than half an hour daily to keep the system going, she said. That maintenance includes feeding the fish and harvesting the fresh vegetables and fish when they are fully grown.
"University of Florida professors are interested in what we're doing as far as changing the flavor of the meat and making it more nutritious," Ms. Manche said.
Mr. McLaine said too much of the seafood consumed in this country comes from overseas and lacks flavor and nutrition.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in 2011, 91 percent of the seafood in the U.S. was imported.
"The quality is lower than the lowest quality beef at Taco Bell," Mr. McLaine said.
You can make (fish) taste better and change the nutrient level inside of them, he said. "You shouldn't be feeding them fish or meat or bone meal. They're vegetarians and they thrive on algae and water."
"What the fish eat they become," Mr. Kruckenberg added.
Half of the seafood Americans consume is farm-raised, according to the NOAA website.
Mr. Kruckenberg said there's a huge demand for aquaculture as the demand for farm-raised fish increases.
"We have a unique operation," Ms. Manche said. "We try to teach low-tech setup with high production. You can build (the system) at a low cost but produce more if you do it right."
Osteen Organics is a cooperative effort within the family aimed at achieving a cooperative effort within the community.
"We'd like to get about 100 people (each) growing 100 pounds a year to bring back a fifth of the seafood industry," Mr. McLaine said.
Mr. Kruckenberg said on its own, Osteen Organics cannot keep up with the demand for fresh vegetables, either.
"There is no way, with the size of our place now, we can grow and fill all of the potential orders for lettuce," he said.
Aside from lettuce, the farm produces green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and broccoli. Beds of fresh basil are harvested, dried, bagged and sold as fast as it grows.
Mr. Kruckenberg said farming has gotten so commercialized that "fresh" food is being delivered to stores from distribution centers great distances from the farms.
"When we distribute, it's hours old," he said.
Commercial farmers are forced to overwork the land, which affects the taste of what's grown there, he explained.
That kind of high production also impacts nutritional quality.
"They use oil-based pesticides, which don't wash off," Mr. McLaine said. "When you continually overturn the soil, you don't give it time to rest. They put vitamins in instead of getting them naturally from the land, which affects nutrition."
The validity of their claims is in the flavor of their produce.
Ms. Manche listed the benefits of aquaponics:
No nutrient is wasted
Children learn to grow food and care for living things
No ongoing soil improvements required
Raised beds keep plants free from ground-dwelling pests
Systems conserve scarce water resources, using only 10 percent of the water needed to grow vegetables in the ground
An environmentally friendly way to grow food
More cost-effective to obtain locally grown food
Low energy consumption
And, she said, it provides a great topic of conversation for guests.
"Our goal wasn't just to have our farm; our goal was to set it up so we could teach other families to grow their own food, and grow their own business," Ms. Manche said.
Two local families are setting up farms based on the principles they learned at Osteen Organics. Ms. Manche said people from all over the country have approached her family, eager to learn more.
"Much of the interest has come from high-finance people interested in this industry," she said.
Mr. McLaine is proud of the farm's free-range chickens, which also are for sale. They include Rhode Island Reds, Frizzles and Plymouth Rocks. Left to their own devices they produce some interesting offspring.
"We call them designer chickens," Mr. McLaine said. "Why have a regular chicken when you can have a designer chicken?"
Those who attend classes at Osteen Organics can count on continued support.
"We have an incentive to keep up with families after the classes," Ms. Manche said. "We have connections to help them sell (what they grow) which will help us all."
Mr. Kruckenberg said the family's goal is to be part of a large co-op with 10 percent of profits going to help the area's underserved -- including single mothers, homeless shelters and others who can't afford food.
"We'd like to get 100 people producing a million pounds a year," he said.
"And the government doesn't control it," Ms. Manche added.