Faces of the Ecological Movement: Nate Storey and Bright Agrotech, Part I

Introduction

I recently interviewed Dr. Nate Storey, owner and inventor of Bright Agrotech. This interview is the first in a series of interviews with different folks involved in the broader ecological movement. The editors at ETR are too often confronted with a common misconception about who is part of this movement, many think it is only urbanite arm-chair environmentalists. Our purpose in the upcoming series, entitled Faces of The Ecological Movement, is to showcase just how varied and diverse the background and interests are of those who would consider themselves part of this larger movement. This is a movement of activists, farmers, conservationists, community organizers, ecologists, teachers, pastors, and more.

After completing his BS at the University of Wyoming, Nate Storey was given the option to continue research in a graduate studies program. The overproduction of waste in aquaculture production and its negative effects on ecosystems led Storey to aquaponics, a system that combines fish production (aquaculture) and soil-less plant production (hydroponics). Storey finished his MS at the university still unhappy with the current state of vertically-integrated farming which led to his staying on and completing a PhD. His PhD research led to the innovation of a new and novel type of vertical aquaponic (and hydroponic) farming that lends itself to live in-store sales, an important component of Bright Agrotech’s model.

The interview with Dr. Storey will be published in two parts over two weeks at ETR. The first part of the interview focuses on Bright Agrotech’s own products, aquaponics, and the viability of home production. The second part of the interview broadens out to discuss the wider social, environmental, and faith based motivations behind Dr. Storey’s work and the future of alternative agriculture.

Part I.

Can you talk about Bright Agrotech’s specific model and how it separates y’all from the rest of the industry?

“Our focus is entirely vertical farming of greens and herbs, these are really high dollar crops, and we use the equipment we developed. By using this system, what it allows us to do is grow about three times minimum as much produce as you could grow horizontally. Which environmentally and as far as cost go is a great thing. We developed this equipment and use it on our farm and our customers use it on their farm, and they’re able to grow a lot more as a function of the energy they’re using. It also allows them to take everything to market and sell it live, which is a really big deal for us. We are an aquaponics farm in Laramie (Wyoming) but we also own a hydroponics farm in Colorado. Our customers are doing both aquaponics and hydroponics depending on where they are at, and both of those are pretty darn sustainable forms of agriculture from an environmental perspective. And depending on the economics of the area they are in, the demographics, and market opportunities available it can be pretty sustainable economically as well.”

With the vertical farming what kind of plants can you grow, I’m guessing most roots crops can’t be grown using it?

“You can grow roots crops but they come out really ugly and they’re harder to harvest, which defeats the purpose of the live sale. We grow mostly greens and herbs, focusing primarily on greens like kale, chards, lettuce and herbs like cilantro, parsley, oregano, basil, sage, rosemary. The reason for that is they’re mostly smaller crops that benefit the most from vertical orientation and they’re also really high dollar crops. Most of them have high water weight and they don’t transport very well. Most of the lettuce you buy at the supermarket is days old, if not weeks old. So being able to grow these high water weight, very spoilable crops and sell them fresh and live to our customers ends up giving us a premium on cost and our customers a premium on flavor and nutrition.

Aquaponics is a fairly new concept to many people outside the industry, could you give an overview of it and the benefits of that system?

“Sure. An aquaponics system has two distinct sub-systems: we have the fish production and we have the plant production. Traditionally fish production, or aquaculture, has been done where the water is recirculated through really expensive equipment that removes the waste nutrients which are then dumped into municipal sewage. This is really expensive. On the other side we have the plant production end of things where traditionally we supply artificial fertilizers, man-made fertilizers, which the plants take up and grow but it can be wasteful in its own right. By combining the two [aquaponics] we build an ecology where the fish are producing waste and the plants are consuming that waste, and of course there are microbes there working to break that waste down. We end up with an interesting ecology where we put fish feed into the system and take plant material out. Some people will also take fish out, we don’t do that regularly as the fish are more of a nutrient source for us. What all of this does is give us the means to an organic hydroponics.”

How sustainable is an aquaponic system compared to a hydroponic system or traditional agriculture?

“Well it depends where you’re at, the availability of fish feed is one major concerning variable. But if you are in an area where there is high quality fish feed available and you’re in an area that places a lot of value on organic produce, aquaponics can be a sustainable enterprise. Hydroponics, on the other hand, are reliant on man made fertilizers and this nutrient solution, so in either case you’re always dependent on some outside variable. The question is which one is better and that varies from situation to situation.”

I’ve checked out your website and it seems a big focus of Bright Agrotech is being available to home scale production in addition to commercial production. If someone was considering a home setup can you talk about the cost, time, and maintenance involved? And also some of the benefits to growing food at home?

Growing food at home is an important part of the human experience and in that regard I think it’s good for everyone. Now the costs of that is highly variable dependent on the system you want to put in. Putting in an aquaponics system is going to be more expensive than planting a garden in your backyard. At the same time, aquaponics will give you more production and is more water conservative. Additionally, you can get fish out of it as well.

“A lot of people will use used or recycled components to help them reduce their costs. It is highly variable from place to place. They’re typically relatively affordable and they’re a really fun hobby. Well designed systems only need a few hours of maintenance a week and the bulk of that is feeding the fish.”

If someone is considering harvesting the fish, is there a significant amount of protein that can be harvested off of a family setup?

“It’s going to be a smaller amount. Protein wise as far as harvesting the fish, you’re interacting with an ecology. It’s not like a traditional production system where you’re just producing whole scale massive amounts of vegetable matter, massive amounts of fish protein. Because it’s on a much smaller scale, there is limitations to how much you can take out of the system regularly, especially when it comes to fish. So it is possible to set up family-type systems that supply a pound or two of protein a week, which for a family is sufficient. Now a lot of people would say, I need a pound of protein everyday and in that instance, no that’s not realistic. But as far as  providing sustainable, adequate amounts of protein and vegetable matter it is absolutely possible to build a system that does that.”

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