A couple of years back, the adventurous folks at The Gardens at Pheasant Run went fishing for a different way to farm - and they caught on to aquaponics.

Sustainable and environmentally friendly, this unique method of growing things combines plants and fish in a symbiotic system. The plants, which are cultivated in water instead of soil like in conventional farming or gardening, get their nutrients from the natural byproducts of the fish.

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In other words, the plants feed off the fish poop.

It's not really quite as simple as that, of course, as bacteria is also an important part of the mix, helping to break down those fish byproducts into nutrients that plants can actually use.

For as strange as the system may seem to those who've never heard of aquaponics before, there are a lot of benefits to growing food this way. D'Anne Sherbrooke, who manages the aquaponic farm at The Gardens at Pheasant Run, in Lake Park, says the growing times are "a lot faster than traditional gardening - a head of lettuce can grow from seed to harvest in 28 to 30 days."

"That's probably due to them getting more oxygen," she explains, "and it's a more controlled environment."

Aquaponics isn't new - it's been around for more than 30 years - but aquaponic farming is still considered a relatively new and niche industry, and sizable aquaponic farms are few and far between. The agricultural method has been growing in popularity, however, especially in the past decade, because of its many advantages.

Aquaponic farms operate year-round, in an indoor, greenhouse-type environment, and there's almost always something ready to harvest. There's increased crop production per square foot versus the conventional norm, with crop turn rates at 4-5 times that of traditional farming.

The systems are easier on the environment, too: aquaponic farms don't usually require any synthetic fertilizers, and rarely need to use pesticides beyond organic sprays. They have a low net power usage, and use far less water than conventional farms.

But the best benefit of growing food via aquaponics, according to Sherbrooke, is the high quality of the products produced. The Gardens at Pheasant Run grows a vast variety of lettuces, as well as herbs and cucumbers, and Sherbrooke says the lush, bright appearance and flavor-packed taste of these foods is undeniable.

"It's a big difference," she says. "Once you've had a salad with this - the color is so vibrant, that you get, and the flavor is great - once you've had this, you get kind of spoiled and you don't want to eat the other lettuce in the store."

The foods stay good in the refrigerator for longer than non-aquaponic products, too, she adds, with a head of lettuce lasting up to a good month before it starts to wilt. That's without any preservatives, which The Gardens at Pheasant Run never uses.

Sherbrooke was completely new to aquaponics herself when her friend and employer, Linda Tharaldson, the owner of The Gardens at Pheasant Run, introduced the system into her farming operation. The first year was very much a learning year, with lots of experimentation, says Sherbrooke - what's the ideal pH range of the water, for example, and what nutrients and minerals need to be added into the water separately because the fish don't provide enough of them on their own?

"Last year was our first year of actual growth," Sherbrook says. "We didn't start selling until about September, so we're still doing some trial and error and getting a feel for it. It's been kind of a learning curve... but we're getting a flow to it."

Sherbrooke says Tharaldson has always had a passion for gardening (The Gardens at Pheasant Run is home to large conventional gardens in addition to the aquaponic farm), but "she wanted to do something else, too."

"She got into this with her son," Sherbrooke adds. "She had done some smaller herb aquaponics before, but her son wanted to do the bigger system, so then we kind of jumped in head first."

The system used at The Gardens at Pheasant Run is described by Sherbrooke as "decoupled," meaning the fish tank and the aquatic plant beds are separate. They have a 5,500-gallon tank that houses their fish, which have numbered from around 2,500 up to 4,000 at any given time. Those include Talapia, Koi and some hybrid Bluegills.

The fish are fed special food so they produce high-nutrient waste. This waste is separated out into a holding tank, where the heavy deposits sink to the bottom and the minerals float up, Sherbrooke explains. Twice a day, the system's air pipes "pull the waste through all of the plant beds," and the plant's roots, which grow down into the water in the beds, absorb the nutrients.

"It's pretty slick," says Sherbrooke.

The fish are obviously crucial to the plants' growth, but the system also works in their favor by keeping the water clean and safe. Like the plants they help feed, the fish are put into the system when young, grow up there, and are later harvested and sold.

Plants harvested from the system are packaged into plastic containers with The Gardens at Pheasant Run's green labels, and sold at Central Market in Detroit Lakes as well as Tony's SuperValu in Hawley. They're all sold with the roots still on, and need to be kept refrigerated and washed before eating, Sherbrooke says.

Starting in late June, The Gardens at Pheasant Run will be open to the public on Thursdays and Fridays, from about 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., so people can buy not only the leafy greens, cucumbers and herbs grown in the aquaponics system, but also the tomatoes, squash, zucchini, pumpkins, strawberries, rhubarb, potatoes and lots more that are grown in the farm's extensive outdoor gardens. The farm will also sell their free-range chicken and duck eggs, as well as pure honey from their hives.

The Gardens at Pheasant Run is a sprawling, gated property that lies at the end of Pheasant Run Road in Lake Park (Cormorant Township), off Becker County 1 on Upper Cormorant Lake. It features large fenced-in pastures, multiple barns and outbuildings, and an impressive variety of colorful trees, shrubs and flowers that are all easily seen on the drive in. The grounds and buildings are kept neat and clean.

The farm is home to many animals, including horses, large breed dogs, cats, chickens, ducks and about 100 head of Wagyu and Wagyu-hybrid cattle, which are grass-fed on the farm and then sold for their high-end, extra-tender meat.

The farm has been slowly and steadily growing since it was purchased by Tharaldson in the mid-1990s, and it employs at least two full-time people as well as a handful of other part-time laborers, depending on the season.

"There's lots of activity here, all the time," says Sherbrooke.

Aquawhat?

Aquaponics is the term for an agricultural system that combines conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as fish in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment.

In an aquaponic system, water from an aquaculture system is fed to a hydroponic system, where the animal byproducts are broken down and utilized by the plants as nutrients. Then, the water is recirculated back to the aquaculture system.

In some systems, the fish and the plants share a tank, while in others, the fish are kept in a separate tank. Either way, the aquaponic fish and plants work in harmony, keeping the water clean and safe for the fish and allowing healthy plants to grow

The size, complexity, and types of foods grown in an aquaponic system can vary greatly.

Aquaponics is generally considered to be highly sustainable and environmentally responsible, using less power and water than traditional farming, and requiring few to no fertilizers or pesticides.

Other benefits include year-round harvests, timely crop turnaround, increased crop production, minimal required maintenance and ease of use (many of the plants that thrive in aquaponic environments are very easy to grow).

Though it's become more popular over the past decade, high startup costs and potential losses due to equipment failure have kept aquaponics from growing into a larger industry.

Information compiled from online sources

Check it out

WHAT: Farmers Markets at The Gardens; all kinds of fresh produce, eggs and honey for sale

WHERE: The Gardens at Pheasant Run, at the end of Pheasant Run Road in Lake Park (Cormorant Township), off County Highway 1. Sales will take place in a building near the chicken and duck free range area, directly across the road from the farm's outdoor gardens.

WHEN: Thursdays and Fridays starting in late June, from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m.

WHO: All are welcome