December 2013
Farm & Field

Aquaculture Meets Hydroponics

Birchfield Farms Combines Systems for Unique Food Production

  Tony Birchfield grows butter lettuce in waterbeds free of pesticides and field debris.

Over the years, my life experiences prepared me for the kind of work I am doing today," Tony Birchfield shared. "From my childhood years growing up on a farm to years working for the Alabama Sheriff’s Boys Ranch and later in construction, I gained hands-on knowledge about how things work. In hindsight though, I could use a few more chemistry classes!"

As Birchfield explains aquaponics, one easily can see that chemistry, life science and more are now major components of his everyday life.

Managing an aquaponic farm may not have been what Birchfield thought he would be doing in his retirement years, yet he seems entirely prepared for the work. Several years ago, his son Andy purchased some Tallapoosa County forestland and asked his father to manage it. Andy believed the property, now known as Birchfield Farms, would be a great place for his own children to spend weekends - hunting, fishing and enjoying the blessings rural life offers. The farm provides a family escape from busy life in Montgomery. In his role as farm manager, Tony built a fishpond, constructed a barn and made other enhancements so Andy and his grandchildren could enjoy the land. The idea for adding aquaponics to the farm grew from Andy’s hope to care for others.

"Andy and his wife Tanya, active members in their church, visited Haiti on a mission trip in 2010," Birchfield explained. "Haiti had experienced a horrible earthquake earlier that year. The death toll was high and lots of kids were orphaned as a result. When First Baptist visited Haiti, they found 16 children living in a tent and being cared for by only one young adult. The church felt led by God to help these children and others like them."

Because produce grows in the greenhouse at Birchfield Farms, vegetables can be grown year round.  

First Baptist Montgomery adopted the Haiti Initiative as one of the key pieces of their Children’s Hope ministry. The Haiti Initiative now includes an orphanage to care for as many children as possible. At the orphanage, the children live, learn and grow.

In an effort to sustainably feed the children and adults working at the orphanage, Andy considered aquaponics. He knew aquaponics proved to be a viable option in Third World countries and hopes it can work for the orphanage in Haiti.

Before taking the idea south, he wanted to be sure of the system. Adding aquaponics to Birchfield Farms seemed to be the logical way to learn more.

As an aquaponic farm, Birchfield Farms has been in operation since September 2012. With much help from Auburn University’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences, Tony and Andy have successfully grown the operation. Aquaponics, a food production system, combines aquaculture with hydroponics in a symbiotic environment. Basically, raising aquatic animals in tanks (aquaculture) and cultivating plants in water (hydroponics) are combined into one balanced system known as aquaponics.

Carol Birchfield and her granddaughter Hope with a package of lettuce grown in a waterbed at Birchfield Farms.  

In the Birchfield’s symbiotic system, fish provide nutrients for a variety of vegetables grown in waterbeds or pots irrigated with water. Inside of a 100 by 30 greenhouse, Birchfield tends two 2,000-gallon tanks with each tank holding 600 tilapia. Water from the tanks pumps through a drain and into a clarifier. Inside the clarifier, solids are removed. The water continues through biofilters for further cleaning before being used to irrigate the plants. The plants use the water they need and the remaining water returns to the closed system.

Because the produce grows inside a greenhouse, vegetables can be grown year round. Birchfield Farms grows lettuce, kale, tomatoes, okra, cucumbers and more. Inside the greenhouse, pests are rarely an issue for the produce.

"Even if pests were an issue, we would not spray pesticides as they could be harmful to the fish," Birchfield stated. "Anything we spray could go directly back into the water/fish tanks."

The tilapia receives protein from a commercial fish food. On a daily basis, Birchfield tests the water to ensure the system stays in balance. When he has questions, he calls upon Dr. Jesse Chappell, an assistant professor and Extension specialist at Auburn Fisheries.

Over the past year, Birchfield has learned a great deal. He staggers the age of the fish so there are always larger size fish available. Fingerlings, or baby fish, are purchased from Auburn University Fisheries. Within seven to nine months, the small fish grow to approximately a two-pound size.

Birchfield continues to work on timing for plants. For example, he has learned he must plant lettuce seeds every 15-20 days, especially since he has a dedicated, strong market for his lettuce.

Demand for other vegetables and the tilapia is growing. Currently, Birchfield sells directly to the public. Vegetables can be purchased at standard market prices. He sells tilapia live by the pound. He recommends buyers bring an ice chest for travel.

  Below, fresh picked cucumbers from Birchfield Farms are crisp and delicious!

Although Birchfield hopes the aquaponic farm in Dadeville will eventually pay for itself, he is quick to share how this farm is more about learning the basics of aquaponics so the lessons can in turn be shared with people who need food, jobs and so much more in Haiti.

"Andy really wants to help those in need in Haiti," Birchfield proudly said. "He fell in love with the people there and feels called by God to help. I’m glad he is able to help them and glad to do my part in the process."

Want to buy fresh vegetables or tilapia for dinner? Birchfield Farms is open to the public. Call Tony Birchfield at 205-928-0130 before going. The farm is located north of Dadeville on Madwind Road. For more information about First Baptist Montgomery’s Children’s Hope program, please visit www.childrens-hope.com.

Ashley Smith is a freelance writer from Russell County.