The desert plains of the Middle East are the last places anyone would expect to see the roots of a small aquaponics business in Logan making a huge impact…
Yet that is exactly what is happening in a multimillion dollar aquaponics farm built in Oman by an agricultural scientist, who learned his craft from a North Maclean aquaponics specialist.
Agricultural engineer and scientist, Canadian resident Arvind Venkat, is making significant progress in bolstering Oman’s food security through aquaponics, which could reduce its dependence on long term food imports.
Mr Venkat is the Scientific Director at WaterFarmers Aquaponics, a leading commercial aquaponics consultancy based in Toronto, Canada.
His knowledge and expertise in creating farms across the world can be traced all the way back to aquaponics specialist Murray Hallam of North Maclean.
“We work shoulder to shoulder in my commercial projects,” says Mr Venkat. “He plays a very active part even today in some of the very large farms that we’re building across the world.”
Mr Venkat has the goal of developing 100 acres of aquaponics farms across the world, using techniques he learned from Mr Hallam’s workshops.
He has farms in Hong Kong, China, Sri Lanka, Qatar, Bahrain, the US, Canada, and now, Oman, which is home to his flagship 5-acre, multi million dollar project.
One of the major reasons aquaponics is so valuable is that it produces food without the need for soil and rain, which is exactly why it suits a country like Oman lacking the environment or climate to naturally produce adequate food supplies.
“It’s not some place where you envision having farming,” he says.
“The farmland has been receding from the general coastal plains, as they were referred to historically, and they are shifting now because all the water is getting exhausted on the coast.
“Either it’s being encroached by seawater, so the water is now becoming brackish, or they’re just completely drying out their wells.”
Traditionally, the country has addressed this issue by importing their food mainly from Europe, South East Asia, and Australia.
“Other than getting crude oil out of the earth, nothing much else comes out of it,” says Mr Venkat.
Once finished, Mr Venkat’s whole farm will be contained in a warehouse, operating mostly off automated systems, and will produce an estimated 350 tonnes of fish and 800 tonnes of vegetables per year.
This massive technical operation is a complex arrangement of simple concepts spawning from ancient traditions upheld by the Aztecs, who farmed food on shallow lake beds known as Chinampas.
Today, the basic principles of using fish and water for farming converge in the discipline of aquaponics – a combination of aquaculture, which is farming with fishing, and hydroponics, which is growing plants without regular soil.
The fish bind the system together: their waste, collected at the bottom of tanks, breaks down and releases nutrients which are then distributed to plants growing in beds and trays of plants without soil.
Plant roots then clean the water as it passes through the system, before filtering back into the fish tanks to complete the closed cycle or loop.
Mr Venkat’s deep dive into the world of aquaponics started back when he was at university researching urban sustainability and he came across an aquaponics DVD made by North Maclean local Murray Hallam.
“It cropped up in my university library, would you even believe that? That’s how I picked it up in the University of Toronto,” says Mr Venkat.
The DVD was one of three in a series of tutorials for building a basic aquaponics farm.
“Murray actually produced one of the first DVDs on aquaponics, and those DVDs just went ballistic all over the world,” Mr Venkat says.
“Three DVDs, that’s all it took, he was an international sensation before he even knew it.”
That includes having a huge following in India, where Mr Hallam has quite the celebrity profile, Mr Venkat adds.
Mr Venkat went on to attend three of Mr Hallam’s courses in the US, which was around the time, 10 years ago, that aquaponics was flourishing as a ‘backyard revolution’ in Australia.
“[It came about] at a time when a lot of this was stuck in academic research,” he says. “There wasn’t very great traction at that time because you had lots of guys put out papers, but nothing much else was very useful to people to quickly latch on.”
Mr Hallam built his reputation on being able to simplify aquaponics concepts in reliable and safe ways.
“I know some very big names who have become internet sensations now in the United States,” says Mr Venkat. “Most of them have drawn their inspirations from Murray’s initial teachings in their designs.”
The ‘shoe box’ origins of the Hallams’ aquaponics excellence
All this international fuss came as a huge surprise to Mr Hallam, who started aquaponics as a hobby stemming from a curiosity in harvesting food from home.
“It’s a good story this whole thing, with the worldwide reach we’ve got,” says Mr Hallam. “We’re just little people in a tiny shoebox office here in the back box of North McLean.”
“The things that are happening around the world is astonishing.”
None of Mr Hallam’s success would have been possible without his supportive wife, Gail Hallam, who works behind the scenes running workshops and tours on their farm.
“From my point of view, it’s always been very exciting just seeing the different people interested in what we were doing and took it on board,” says Mrs Hallam.
Together, they run Practical Aquaponics in North Maclean, specialising in both the merchandising and education side of aquaponics.
Through their online and in-person workshops, the Hallams have tutored people from 110 countries, which they say has led to some significant projects, ranging from the smallest of individual farms to those on mass industrial scales, like Mr Venkat’s.
“Everybody working here is lovely,” Mrs Hallam says. “It’s a whole positive atmosphere, you’ve got the therapeutic feel of the greenhouses, the falling water, the fish swimming around, and the good will of people.”
People consult the Hallams for a range of reasons, whether it is environmental or the convenience and affordability of having their own food sources. However, the main one is for a health concern.
“That is the primary reason people come, is for food purity” she says.
“Those who come to us who have some kind of ill health, and they’re trying to do their best to get their diets under control and wanting food that has no bad chemicals.”
A boat builder by trade, Mr Hallam first discovered his interest in aquaponics one day while he was experimenting using a fibreglass tank he built.
From that moment roughly 15 years ago, it only took a year before the hobby ballooned into a business.
“I’d like to be able to say I went and did an MBA, planned the business, did all the stuff that you’re supposed to do they teach you at university, but the business is purely an accident,” says Mr Hallam.
“I thought after a few weeks it was going quite well, so I put up a website, and that’s how it got started.
“We got that many inquiries off the website I couldn’t believe it, I thought ‘what the hell is going on here?’”
His reputation grew quickly, and he soon found himself boarding a flight to the US for the first of many overseas trips to present at conferences and seminars. He was even the keynote speaker at the World Aquaponics Association Conference in 2011, and he has since presented in Hungary, Portugal, South Africa, Morocco, to Taiwan.
“There were already people in America doing aquaponics but they weren’t very well known, but we just seemed to develop a very early reputation for doing what we were doing,” he says.