Farm uses aquaponics system to produce vegetables and fish |

Farm uses aquaponics system to produce vegetables and fish

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To learn more about Colorado Aquaponics, including how to get started with your own aquaponics operation, go to or email


Upcoming Aquaponics trainings at Colorado Aquaponics

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Aquaponics Greenhouse Design

July 15-16 at Geotech Environmental

Aquaponics Basics and Build

July 30 at The GrowHaus

Flourish Farm Aquaponics Course

Aug. 10-13 at GeoTech Environmental

Aquaponics Basics and Build

Sept. 10 at The GrowHaus

Aquaponics Immersion

Oct. 7-8 at GeoTech Environmental

Flourish Farm Aquaponics Course

Oct. 26-29 at GeoTech Environmental

Aquaponics Greenhouse Design

Nov. 4-5 at Geotech Environmental

Aquaponics Basics and Build

Nov. 19 at The GrowHaus

Aquaponics Immersion

Dec. 2-3 at GeoTech Environmental

In 2009, J.D. Sawyer got laid off. He and his wife, Tawnya, had newborn twins and a 3-year-old daughter. Times were difficult, and J.D. and Tawnya decided to start growing some of their own food in the backyard to help sustain them.

“It was sort of a joke, like, ‘Hey, let’s turn the kiddie pool into the fish tank and raise our own fish,’” Sawyer said. “Then, we started poking around with it on the internet and discovered this aquaponics thing.”

That aquaponics thing turned into a new business for J.D. and a way to give back to the community, many of whom were also suffering after the economic downturn. The Sawyers founded Colorado Aquaponics, which opened farms at The GrowHaus, a nonprofit in Denver’s low-income Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, and The Mental Health Center in Denver. Colorado Aquaponics also branched into The Aquaponics Source, a business designed to help others start their own aquaponics systems either on a home or an industrial scale.

Aquaponics is an agricultural system that combines aquaculture, or raising fish, and hydroponics, the soil-free plant raising system. In aquaponics systems, the waste from the fish fertilize the plants and the plants clean the water to keep the fish healthy. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that, but the bottom line is everything in the system contributes to the growth of everything else.

“The biggest benefit is that we reuse the water — really circulate the water in the system — so we’re not discharging or wasting any water,” Sawyer said. “We can grow a tremendous amount of food with a tenth of the water that you would otherwise use in a traditional, soil-based agriculture.”

Sawyer said when they got started with Colorado Aquaponics, there were only a handful of other people in the country who were experts about aquaponics. In the time since they started, the industry has bloomed, largely because it’s an effective way to grow a lot of food in a small area.

“In urban centers, it affords you the opportunity to grow food locally. You get a lot of people that want to grow their own food, for whatever reason, health reasons or self-reliance or they just want to take charge of the food supply,” Sawyer said. “That’s a powerful thing for people, so the reaction has been wonderful.”


The educational aspect of Colorado Aquaponics is one of the most important. Aquaponics is a way to get a new generation excited about agriculture, Sawyer said, and way for younger children to see that farming can be exciting.

“When I get fish tanks in the classroom, or when we do field trips and (kids) come to the farm, it’s kind of a, ‘wow, this is pretty exciting.’ The kids get engaged,” Sawyer said. “We really need to get kids excited about growing food again.”

The amount of interest Sawyer sees from people about starting their own aquaponics farm continues to grow year after year, he said. The Aquaponics Source sells everything from aquarium-sized systems to commercial-scale systems. They also help schools, like Lakewood High School, start aquaponics for educational purposes.

Colorado Aquaponics’ website features an interview with Matthew Brown, the teacher at Lakewood High School who runs the aquaponics farm. He explained that at first, the students were taken aback by the technology, but soon warmed up to it and wanted to take a hands on approach.

“Most students like planting and caring for the plants,” he said. “Seeing something that they planted spring from the ground can change their whole outlook. Kids can come in grumpy, but they immediately cheer up when they interact with the fish and plants.”


Sawyer said before aquaponics, he never saw himself as a farmer. He never imagined having a career centered around food production. But once he started growing and started seeing the impact a strong food system can make on a community, like the affect The GrowHaus is having on the food desert in Elyria-Swansea, he knew he’d found the right path.

“The impact it had specifically on that neighborhood is incredible,” he said. “But it also serves to be a model that could be reproducible for other communities that may be struggling with some of the same issues.”

The farm at The GrowHaus produces about 20,000 pounds of produce and 1,500 pounds of fish each year, he said. Those products circulate back into the community through direct sales and sales to local markets and restaurants.

In November 2016, the Sawyers sold the farm at The GrowHaus to the organization itself. When they started the farm in 2012, they agreed to run it for four years and help get it established and teach the staff at The GrowHaus how to operate it.

Kate Farley, the aquaponics manager at The GrowHaus, said the transition has been exciting and the farm is running well.

“We’re really excited that (transition) happened,” she said. “The aquaponics farm is a very cool area.”

Now, through education about aquaponics and helping others start their own farms, Sawyer hopes that just like the fish in the kiddie pool inspired him, aquaponics will inspire others.

“I never had anyone in seven years say, ‘You know, aquaponics is not helping anyone,’” Sawyer joked. “I’m thrilled to be a part of that.” ❖

­— Work is a freelance writer from Lakewood, Colo. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @nikkidoeswork.


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