Jerry heads to Buderim to pick up some fish and chips, and finds out about how the shop owner has started an aquaponic farm 15 minutes away to provide fresh, healthy and affordable vegetables to the average punter through the meals at his shop.
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Aquaponics is loosely defined as a soil-less system for growing plants, where the nutrients are supplied by fish excreta. “The fish do their business, it’s cycled into the grow bed and the bacteria use the fish fertiliser and break it down. Then the plants use it up (cleaning the water for the fish), and the water is cycled back to the fish. Everything works”. The fish are used only for their fertilising ability, not fried and served.
“I studied as an engineer and I have a passion for farming. I built a little system at home and had it for two years. I can see how amazing it is”.
That small trial has now led to a 500sqm fully fledged aquaponic farm, a mere 15 minutes drive from the restaurant. Nattapon is ensured a supply of fresh veg year-round, and food miles are now food minutes.
Nattapon’s system uses native jade perch to provide the nutrients. For Nattapon, relying on fish to provide the fertiliser was a natural, self-sustaining way to build his system; “you mimic the whole ecosystem”. While he doesn’t serve the perch up to customers, “I have eaten them. Good eating fish full of omega 3 oil. Our biggest fish is about 700g and they can grow up to 3-4 kilo”.
He has 3 different growing techniques, each suited to different types of crops. Leafy greens and salads are grown on rafts in floating beds, where their roots are permanently submerged in the nutrient rich water. Heavy feeders like tomatoes are grown in gravel, where their thicker roots can gain more of a foothold. Nattapon says root vegetables (like radishes) don’t perform well in the gravel, so he’s trialling growing them in a pure sand mix, irrigated with the same water. “It’s easier for the roots to move out of the way”.
Nattapon is continually testing and tweaking to improve the output of his farm and get more veg on his customers plates. Through the year he’s been trialling over 20 varieties of lettuce, to see which ones perform best in the system. He’s narrowed it down to 4 top contenders, but is waiting to see how they perform over summer to endorse a candidate. He’s also trialling a variety of Thai pumpkin, “it’s much better flavour than the Japanese pumpkin you’re normally getting. It’s more sweet and the texture is more dense, it’s not all soft when you cook them, so you’ve got a texture. I’m a chef so looking for taste but also texture”.
There’s also a resident flock of chooks, to “recycle the kitchen waste and vegetable scraps”. The resulting eggs are used back in the kitchen. “We want it to be 100% sustainable”.
“The word rak means love in Thai, that’s why we named this operation Farm Rak, farm of love, because that’s where we start”. “We care for the environment, we love our customer, we want to feed them the fresh food and make it affordable.”
Nattapon’s commitment to serving fresh and healthy food is inspiring, and starts at his farm. He shows that food growing isn’t always best left to big commercial growers, and taking responsibility for the quality of the produce he’s serving is having tasty results.
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