Farming in a Strip Mall

Fish waste begets fresh produce at Greener Portions Aquaponics’ suburban hydro farm

click to enlarge Greener Portions Aquaponics grows fresh produce out of an Anderson strip-mall storefront.
Greener Portions Aquaponics grows fresh produce out of an Anderson strip-mall storefront.

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onjure up the image of a basic, non-descript suburban strip mall in your head and you’ll likely see the typical suspects: a dollar store, a pharmacy and a copy shop. It’s certainly not the most bucolic of settings, which is normally where you would expect to find a farm, lush with bright-green produce. But then again, Greener Portions Aquaponics isn’t your traditional farm, and Casey Miller isn’t your typical farmer.

In the winter of 2012, the former sports educator and his fiancé (now wife) Mary Ann Brinkmeyer made a New Year’s resolution to reform their personal eating habits by eating more local produce. They found the choices at the grocery stores disappointing, so Miller and Brinkmeyer decided to take matters into their own hands.

After reading an article about aquaponics, Miller rigged a 75-gallon goldfish tank with makeshift grow lamps to create his own garden in the front window of their living room. The results were messy, and, yes, their neighbors thought they were growing pot, but the output was abundant and the quality high, so they decided the method was a viable way to provide fresh produce for the entire Cincinnati area.

With design help from Friendly Aquaponics out of Hawaii, Miller built a greenhouse and began Greener Portions. We recently had the chance to visit the “farm” and get a tutorial on Aquaponics 101.

CityBeat: What is aquaponics?

Casey Miller: Aquaponics is a water-based agriculture system. We raise fish in a closed-loop environment, and their waste gets converted into usable fertilizer for all of our plants. So the fish eat, produce a lot of ammonia through their solid waste and respiration, and that ammonia is actually what is getting converted into nitrogen. There are also vitamins and minerals in the fish feed that are getting passed through the system, which is how the plants can grow up healthy just like they would in soil.

CB: Sounds pretty low maintenance.

CM: Actually, yeah. Once we get the system up and running, there’s not a whole lot you need to do in order to keep things stable.

CB: What’s the history of aquaponics?

CM: Fish waste and water have been used throughout history to feed plants. In the last 10 years or so, it’s really started to take off as an alternative method to growing food, especially in Eastern countries where the population density is even greater than in the United States, and the need for vertical farming and being able to produce a large amount of food in a really dense urban area is necessary.

CB: Why did you put your “farm” in a strip mall?

CM: In order to kind of get the most bang for our buck as far as eyes on the system. Part of what I do, I guess, is I’m an educator and an ambassador, not to sound too important there, but I help spread the word about aquaponics. And when people walk by and they can see it without having to stop in if I’m not here, they can see the basics of the system and they can read about it on our windows, and at the very least we’re getting the word out about what we do and the method in general.

CB: What are the advantages of aquaponics over traditional dirt gardening?

CM: In agriculture, there’s an incredible amount of water used all the time. We use water, obviously, as our base, but we don’t need to water crops. There are estimates out there (that aquaponics uses) between 90 and 99 percent less water than you would use on a comparable-sized farm, so we’re saving a lot of water. We’re growing things faster — we can shave a few weeks off of growing time comparable to dirt because there’s so much ready-made nutrients available to the root system all the time.

We are not using any sort of synthetic chemicals, herbicides, pesticides, that sort of thing; it’s sort of an organic process by nature, because everything that touches the plants and could potentially get in the water also ends up back in the fish tank, so even if it’s good for the plants, it could be bad for the fish. We’re really limited as to what we can do to control pests and disease, and really it just comes down to creating the healthiest little ecosystem that we can. We’re using a lot less labor as far as harvesting and planting; fossil fuel usage is a lot less as far as diesel fuel for tractors and things like that.

CB: Disadvantages?

CM: Space is always one. When you stick 4,500 gallons of water in a trough, it’s very heavy, so you’ve got to have either a lot of nice flat stable space or a big space of open ground.

For an indoor system, obviously you need to have stable electricity. (Compared to) growing outside with the sun, which is free, it’s there all the time, it’s not gonna go away.


GREENER PORTIONS can be found Wednesdays at the Blue Ash and Northside farmers markets and Saturdays at the Anderson Township farmers market. The produce is available to the public at the “garden” at 5210 Beechmont Ave., Anderson. More information: greenerportions.com.


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