Fresh fish: Bernsteins hooked on growing aquaponics business

LONGMONT — Imagine having a garden that yields fresh vegetables and doesn’t require pulling weeds or getting dirt under your fingernails. What if that yield included some fresh fish as well?

Sylvia Bernstein not only imagined that meal — she made it available for anyone who’s interested in growing it for themselves. The aquaponics system combines aquafarming — raising fish — with hydroponics — growing plants in water.

The symbiotic nature of the method occurs when the fish waste provides a food source to the plants, and the plants provide a filter for the fish water. Microbes, aka bacteria, and worms convert the fish waste into nutrients for the plants.

And the result is a win-win-win. Fish thrive, plants thrive, and gardeners thrive.

“As opposed to hydroponics, aquaponic systems love bacteria because it converts fish waste into plant food,” Bernstein said. “They let nature take its course more than hydroponics.”

Along with her husband, Alan Bernstein, Sylvia launched The Aquaponics Source Inc. in 2010. And now they’re celebrating the company’s move from their basement in Boulder to a 7,600-square-foot facility in Longmont with a grand opening Oct. 5.

The new space includes a retail store, a classroom and a research and development laboratory.

Sylvia’s background includes seven years at AeroGrow International Inc. in Gunbarrel, where she was director of plant production and ran the grow lab. “Some of us wanted to come up with a way to replace the chemical fertilizer used in hydroponics,” she said.

“It ends up that aquaponics isn’t that complicated,” she said. “A guy at work set up an aquaponics system in his basement, and when I saw it, I was stunned at the plant growth from fish wastewater in an aquarium.”

Soon after realizing that the process was more doable than she thought, Sylvia left AeroGrow to start Aquaponic Source and make the technique available to home and school gardeners. She focuses on a consumer market rather than a commercial market.

Aquaponics is thought to date back to the Aztec Indians in approximately 1000 A.D. One of the first large scale commercial operations was established in the mid-1980s, and home-based aquaponics systems took hold in the early 1990s.

In 2011, Sylvia published “Aquaponic Gardening: A Step-By-Step Guide to Raising Vegetables and Fish Together.” The book has sold 40,000 copies.

She also runs an aquaponics forum through the company website. Even though the aquaponic industry is small, maybe 15,000 people in North America and another 15,000 in Australia, according to Sylvia, the forum is read by about 11,000.

Aquaponic gardening can be set up in an aquarium as small as 10 gallons but bigger tanks tend to be more stable. Ninety to 100 gallons is a good size to be able to grow edible fish to plate size.

For every pound of fish, five to 10 gallons of water is needed. Considering that an average amount of fish consumed per year is 37 pounds, a 200-gallon tank will fit the bill.

To make sure the fish get adequate filtered water, plant grow beds need to be a one-to-one ratio of fish tank volume to grow bed volume in gallons.

Aquaponic Source sells systems, plumbing kits, accessories, live fish and worms. It will soon offer classes as well.

“The cost to set up a system depends on whether someone builds their own or gets a turn-key system delivered,” Sylvia said. “It can be as cheap as $100 if you use recycled material.”

Aquaponic systems from the store run from $700 to $6,000, depending on the size and number of grow beds purchased.

Maintenance for systems once they’re set up correctly is low. Basically it involves cleaning the bottom of the pump once a week and feeding the fish.

The Bernsteins self-funded the business with about $70,000, has no investors, no debt and has been profitable since the beginning.

Boot-strapping Aquaponic Source meant keeping it in the couple’s basement for three and one-half years.

“Our customers give us a hard time because we use recycled newspapers to wrap products, and any box that comes in goes out again in another use,” Sylvia laughed.

In addition to Sylvia and Alan, Aquaponic Source runs with a staff of seven.

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