Inside the greenhouse at Canyon View Vineyard Church, an experiment is taking place. Church grounds manager and garden coordinator Rick Kenagy is growing food and raising fish by using a synergistic-growing technique called aquaponics.
The practice is ancient, yet revolutionary. The Mayans are believed to have grown food similarly.
The word "aquaponics" comes from the word "aqua" from "aquaculture" (the raising of fish) and "ponics" from the word "hydroponics" (growing plants in water).
Plants grown in an aquaponics system reach maturity in less time, can grow year-round (depending on temperatures), can be planted more densely, are tastier, and require 90-percent less water than food grown in dirt gardens, proponents say.
Ken Staton, who built an aquaponics system in his backyard on Orchard Mesa, will tell you food grown using aquaponics is superior in taste to that grown in the dirt or by hydroponics.
The food and fish are grown without pesticides, insecticides, antibiotics or hormones.
Staton built his aquaponics system after visiting the one at Canyon View Vineyard Church, 736 24 1/2 Rd. Staton then attended a course on aquaponics at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where the school's controlled-environmental aquaponics greenhouse was constructed in 2008.
"Aquaponics is taking the world by storm," Staton said.
Although the method has been around "forever," the system is becoming more popular as people seek to reduce food costs, and become more concerned about food purity and safety, Kenagy said.
The current drought plaguing the nation also has people looking at more water-efficient ways to garden.
Kenagy and fellow church members, plus other community members, had already been growing food on church property where they have tended a community garden for three seasons.
The two-thirds acre garden is open to community members who come together for work days to plant, weed and water the garden and collect their share of the harvest.
"It really makes for community connecting (and) relationships," Kenagy said. "Our mission is to teach people how to grow food - here in the valley, here at the garden, and in third-world countries."
Kenagy manages the garden with the help of a huge number of volunteers. They deliver some of the abundance to elderly folks who are homebound.
"The low-income elderly, that's where our heart is," Kenagy said.
Kenagy came across the idea of aquaponics after he began researching methods of growing food year-round.
He read about a farmer in Wisconsin whose aquaponics system allowed him to grow a million pounds of food and 10,000 fish on two acres. Kenagy attended an aquaponics conference in Florida to learn more. Plus, he read books on the topic.
"I looked at how I could apply that to us," Kenagy said.
Kenagy first started the aquaponics system in the church garage. Then the church built a greenhouse, so a larger aquaponics system could be built.
In June, Kenagy placed 100 tilapia fingerlings in a 175-gallon tank; a tank of that size will eventually hold 30 pounds of mature fish. In six to eight months, the fish will grow to one-and-a-half to two pounds and be ready for consumption.
Before purchasing the tilapia, the tank was filled with goldfish and koi fish to start the fertilization process. Aquaponics farmers typically raise tilapia, carp, perch, catfish, blue gill - any fish desired for eating. Some people prefer not to eat the fish, and they'll grow them as pets.
Fish waste excreted into the water is pumped into the nearby "grow bed" - where plants flourish in any number of different growing media, such as lava rock, gravel, or hydroton (expanded clay).
Growing in Kenagy's 12-by-4 feet bed are tomatoes, squash, eggplants, taro and peppers. Last week he harvested lettuce, beets, onions and basil.
Aquaponics re-circulates water from the fish tank through a vegetable grow bed that acts as a bio-filter. Nutrients from the fish waste feed the plants, and the plants filter the water to keep the fish healthy.
The water is clear and there's no fishy odor whatsoever.
Another bed contains lettuces grown in a coconut-core medium - a mixture of ground coconut husks and vermiculite. Kenagy planted the seeds in small pots that are placed in holes on a "float raft" on top of a tank where the water continues to circulate.
"We want to provide a community model of food growing that can be transferable to other parts of the community, across the country and to third-world countries," Kenagy said.
The church also plans to help people in Sudan, Afghanistan, Haiti and Thailand set up aquaponics systems, Kenagy said.
"Our hope is to put community training systems together where people can come to learn to grow food and also build a sustainable income by selling food," he said.
The garden group at Canyon View is planning on holding an aquaponics workshop sometime in August or September, Kenagy noted.
Staton is a do-it-yourselfer who is handy at recycling found items. He also plans to take the technology to other parts of the world to help people grow food in a sustainable way.
"We're keeping it simple so we can find materials in Southeast Asia, and make this," Staton said.
He uses feed troughs for his grow beds and fish tanks. At some point, he plans to convert an old hot tub into a fish tank.
Staton also installed a solar panel on his house to make electricity to power the pumps for his aquaponics system.
Staton and Kenagy aren't the only ones on the Western Slope growing food this way. A local high school shop teacher built a system in his classroom. And a Rifle couple, as well as the organic Eagle Springs Farms in Rifle, are growing food via aquaponics as well.
Kenagy gives tours of his aquaponics project every Saturday, from 11 a.m. to noon, or by appointment. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.