The hydroponic and aquaponic systems we have at the Science Center are great demonstrations, but in terms of size and complexity, they’re actually pretty small compared to what you’ll find with industry professionals. Luckily for us, we recently had the amazing opportunity to tour a larger-scale hydroponic setup. Over the next few blog posts, we’ll share with you some of what we learned from our friends over at VAST Produce.

VAST Produce was started by the six Meuth brothers who wanted to connect to their roots and strengthen their family bonds. They wanted to do something related to agriculture—their family has owned farmland close to Waterloo, Illinois for over a century—but different than the conventional field farming. A spark was ignited when one of the brothers visited the aquaponic farms at Walt Disney World, and after much research and planning, the brothers decided the aquaponics path was perfect for them.

VAST Produce in Waterloo, Illinois
VAST Produce in Waterloo, Illinois

Like us, VAST uses aquaponics to grow their crops. At the time of our visit, they had temporarily switched over to hydroponics due to logistical problems with taking care of the fish and finding fish buyers. Their base principle remained the same, though: harness the benefits of aquaponic/hydroponic systems to organically grow lettuce in a year-round setting. Aquaponics can use less water and save on space. The brothers at VAST heavily capitalized on those two factors. They converted an old barn into their aquaponic setup, but the actual grow area takes up less than half of the barn. The rest of the space is reserved for fish tanks, water filtration and lettuce processing. A vast majority of the water they use in spring and fall is collected rainwater. They only pump water from an on-site well when rainfall is less and evaporation is higher in the summer. These two factors allow them to keep costs low and produce plentiful lettuce that they sell at farmers markets in Tower Grove and Waterloo.

The core growing methods that the brothers at VAST use aren’t too different from our aquaponics at GROW, but VAST’s are optimized for a longer growing season and larger output. Both of us start seedlings indoors before transferring them to the growing areas, and we both utilize the deep water culture method (where plants are placed on floating trays on a giant pool of nutriated water) as one of our primary methods for growing crops. To optimize their aquaponics for production, VAST made a few changes to their methods. Rather than starting their seedlings in soil then moving them to pebble baskets like we do, the brothers at VAST start seeds in peat moss, which is then immediately transferable to an aquaponic setup. VAST only keeps their lettuce (their primary crop) in the growing area for a maximum of four weeks. The main reason for this is simply because they sell the lettuce at their peak. Since we are a demonstration site, we keep our crops in longer. Rotating their crops quickly helps keep large insect populations from building up in the growing area. Finally, to ensure that lettuce, a generally cold-weather crop, is comfortable in the summer, they’ve installed a robust cooling system equipped with fans and an evaporative cooler to ensure that the air and water temperature doesn’t exceed a dangerous limit.

Stayed tuned for more information on our visit in coming posts. Keep GROWing!

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