A farmer whose sole product is fish can harvest bigger profits if a vegetable or herb crop is added to the system, said presenters at a conference on aquaculture.
This form of agriculture, called aquaponics, is still rare in Alberta, said Nick Savidov, a research scientist with Alberta Agriculture's crop diversification centre in Brooks.
Bacteria convert the fish waste to nutrients, which are taken up by plants growing in hydroponic troughs. The plants clean the water, which is then piped back to the fish tanks.
Water is conserved, harmful compounds are cleaned out of wastewater, no pesticides are used, organic crops are produced and profits increase.
Aquaponics seems to be a winner from all perspectives. Yet Savidov, who has done extensive research on this form of farming at the Brooks research station, says he knows of only two farmers in Alberta who have ventured into the business.
Ron Clark, an Alberta farmer keen to start an aquaponics operation, says funding is a problem.
"It's difficult to go to a commercial operation because bankers look at you like you have four heads when you bring it up," he said.
Savidov says aquaponics is not widely understood by the general public. He's had four bankers from Canada and the United States call him for advice on the viability of the technology and the economics.
Doug Millar, a farmer from the St. Paul area, built a greenhouse next to his fish hatchery in the mid-'90s. He now sells every cucumber and tomato he can produce at the farmer's market every week.
People in the aquaponics industry boast of the exceptional flavour of their products, and Millar is no different. His customers won't eat "normal" cucumbers and tomatoes anymore, he says.
"People are taking them out of the bag and eating them at the farmer's market because they're so sweet."
Savidov says a food safety study done on aquaponics crops showed there are no pathogenic bacteria on the aquaponics produce.