In the Nevada desert, fish join tomatoes to yield bumper crops

Sometimes, innovation makes for strange bedfellows.

In the Northern Nevada desert, on land once spattered with grazing cattle, inside a 31,000-square-foot greenhouse, tilapia and tomatoes are farmed in partnership. The hydroponic tomatoes break down waste from the fish for nutrients while also cleansing the water so it can be recycled back to the tilapia tanks.

Dayton Valley Aquaponics, in the high desert east of Dayton, Nevada, showcases this circle-of-life system designed to use less energy and labor, produce less waste, and yield healthier, more plentiful harvests than traditional methods of raising fish or farming tomatoes.

Although aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants in water) are settled practices, uniting the two in aquaponics still is a new industry, with only about 500 commercial aquaponics companies in the country.

Dayton Valley ranks among the top five or so U.S. aquaponics firms by square feet and crop volume, according to industry figures; there are no other aquaponics companies in Nevada.

Like the pairing of tilapia and tomatoes, it might seem offbeat, even bizarre, to establish a cutting-edge aquaponics outfit in the Nevada desert, with its low rainfall, scouring winds, roasty summers, and winter snows that often persist into June.

But Northern Nevada, it turns out, is ideal.

“We get over 300 days a year of good strong sun,” said Trevor Birba, Dayton Valley’s business manager. “Even with cold winters and hot summers, that percentage makes Northern Nevada a really strong environment for this kind of agriculture."

And “even in the controlled environment of the greenhouse, 90 percent of the light still comes from the sun directly. Nothing does the job as well as the sun.”

What’s more, as “climate change affects traditional agricultural land and crop cycles,” Birba added, “aquaponics has the potential for real long-term success in the mainstream agricultural marketplace.”

Especially in areas like Northern Nevada that aren’t natural breadbaskets, could this be the future of farming?

Year-round production

Birba, a Northern Nevada native in his early 30s, joined Dayton Valley Aquaponics in 2014, the year it was legally formed.

David Griswold, an investor from Irvine, California, with an interest in sustainable agricultural technologies, owns Dayton Valley and its ranch. A major goal of the company from the outset was to use aquaponics to move the land from seasonal to year-round production.

The elimination of the seasons (leading to increased production) and other aquaponics practices (leading to lower energy costs and better crop quality), Birba said, helps to make Dayton Valley “ecologically and economically sustainable.”

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