The demand for locally-grown produce has skyrocketed in recent years, including in Pittsburgh, where farmers’ markets can be found in neighborhoods across the city from May through October. But as the demand for local produce rises, the limited growing season — most farmers’ markets are winding down for the year, or have already — coupled with a lack of space to grow have led to some creative solutions. Pittsburgh-based SEED Aquaponics is part of a movement to make community agriculture even more eco-friendly.

Colleen Beck started the company two years ago after spending time in Thailand researching sustainability and aquaponics systems.

Founder Colleen Beck adding fish to a system. Courtesy of SEED Aquaponics.

Founder Colleen Beck adding fish to a system. Courtesy of SEED Aquaponics.

Aquaponics, she says, is “a new technology that grows vegetables using fish manure in a closed loop system. In aquaponics you use aquaculture, which is growing fish, and hydroponics, which is growing plants in water, and you combine the two so that the water never leaves the system.”

While the water from the fish gives the nutrients the plants need, the plants in turn filter out the water in the fish tank and the water circulates through the system, she adds. 

While this symbiotic process sounds a lot like a middle school science project, aquaponics can make a global difference in the way we grow produce. The system uses 90 percent less water that the amount typically used in a backyard garden, and grows leafy greens in nearly a third of the time.

When Beck returned from her research trip to Thailand and established SEED Aquaponics, the team built an aquaponic demonstration system at Garfield Healcrest Urban Farms which produces vegetables and herbs year long in the greenhouse. Then SEED constructed a system for an NGO in Slippery Rock.

“It rolled out from there,” says Beck. SEED Aquaponics now focuses on creating custom-made systems for homes, businesses and nonprofits. “We make custom-made scalable systems. Like the person with a backyard who wants a small system like a koi pond and a cute little garden attached to it, that will filter out the water. It can be small, it can even sit on your table inside if you want, but it can be as large as a commercial level system.”

A raised backyard aquaponics system. Courtesy of SEED Aquaponics.

A raised backyard aquaponics system. Courtesy of SEED Aquaponics.

With a grant from the Heinz Foundation, SEED is now working with ARTEZ (Allegheny River Towns Enterprise Zone) to mitigate stormwater runoff with rain barrels. SEED has plans to install rain barrels in seven northeast Pittsburgh communities.

While many clients are in the Pittsburgh area, SEED Aquaponics also builds systems internationally. This summer, SEED took a team of 10, mostly Allegheny College students, to Thailand to help build a commercial level system for an ecolodge which now harvests its produce in-house.

Beck hopes to return in the next year to install a rain catching system so the aquaponic system can use rainwater instead of well water.

With the help of Slippery Rock University and Tree of Life Congregation, SEED Aquaponics is assisting a team of students building a system that will be installed in Uganda next July. Aquaponics is already catching on in the developing nation where water is scarce, and a closed loop system will reduce the probability of water contamination.

As the weather cools down, the team at SEED Aquaponics is planning to develop a shippable, expandable aquaponics system for the next growing season. “Somebody in New Hampshire could order it online, and we could ship it out to them,” Beck says. “If they wanted to expand it out to a medium size system, all we’d have to do is send out a few more pieces.”

By making installation easier and more affordable, Beck hopes to highlight the benefits of backyard aquaponics. “It’s a big solution to growing more food with less water.”