Money burns a hole in Calgarians’ pocket, and that of others in the western Canadian province of Alberta, when it comes to the cost of fresh fish and vegetables during the winter months.
But a local agritech start-up – with its novel soilless, water farming technology blurring the boundary between aquaculture and greens cultivation – is striving to put fresher, more affordable food on the dinner table for Calgary and other landlocked cities in western Canada.
Deepwater Farms, a Calgary-based aquaponics company, began as a backyard science project and is now a growing enterprise.
The company is a commercial producer of fresh produce like leafy greens, all from its aquaponics farm that is the first of its kind in central and western Canada to raise fish alongside plants.
Deepwater Farms founder and CEO Paul Shumlich
Aquaponics refers to any system that combines conventional aquaculture with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment.
Excretions in the water from fish or other aquatic animals are fed to a hydroponic system, where nitrifying bacteria break them into nitrites and nitrates as nutrients for plants. The purified water is then circulated back to the aquaculture system, and the loop starts all over again.
The term aquaponics is a blend of aquaculture and hydroponic agriculture.
Canada saw a rise in aquaponics setups throughout the 2000s, predominantly as commercial installations raising high-value crops such as trout and lettuce.
Deepwater Farm doesn’t ship its food across the nation, rather, it grows food in Calgary so that Calgarians can enjoy it, with diners assured of the local provenance of all ingredients. Harvesting and delivery are done twice each week.
Deepwater Farms founder and CEO Paul Shumlich, now 28 years old, founded the agritech start-up while attending the Mont Royal University in Calgary.
Paul’s career took root in his backyard three years ago when he worked on a project to learn where food came from, which quickly turned into a business seeking to increase the access to fresh food for Calgary, a city located at the very foot of a rugged range of mountains.
Paul describes aquaponics as a concept that integrates different levels of the food chain as a living biological system. The only input is insect protein as fish feed, and fish waste provides nutrients to the plants and the plants, in turn, purify the water for the fish. Thus water is largely preserved throughout the process. The potential is for each subsystem to deal with the other’s waste, as a sustainable, closed-loop whole.
Paul’s “water farm” contains no soil and admits no sunlight, and the floors are spotless. Plants, with their roots suspended in water, will grow on racks under rows and rows of alternative energy-powered LED lamps. Fish swim placidly in nearby blue pools, with water tubes connecting the two subsystems.
The main problem with backyard aquaponics systems in Calgary and the rest of Alberta is called winter, said Paul, as this system would always be sensitive to temperature fluctuations. A fully controlled environment chamber would be the solution.
His “water farm” now recycles 95% of the water and uses merely a tenth of water and land required for traditional cultivation. The baby greens grow three times faster.
“We’ll be marketing our fish and vegetable products as local and organic. We’ll be selling to grocery stores as our channel partner. And we’ll also be distributing to restaurants,” said Paul.
Paul is also doing what entrepreneurs do: trying to sell his vision to investors. While he was still a business student at MRU, he won significant seed money at various student-pitch competitions across Canada. Deepwater Farms has secured a number of angel investments totaling some C$2 million (US$1.52 million) after Paul spent the summer months touring potential investors around his indoor farm.