Fish on the farm
Sept./Oct. 2015 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Joyce Mansfield
Photos by Matt Salvo
Family explores water-wise aquaponics
Wynne Crisman, a software engineer-turned-farmer, designed and built a commercial aquaponics system to conserve water at his family's Petit Teton farm in Mendocino County.
Stopping to eat at the Yorkville Market on scenic Highway 128 is like peering through a window to the bounty of Mendocino County's Anderson Valley. The store welcomes you with items from local farmers and ranchers, including preserves and produce from neighboring Petit Teton farm.
The organic farm's canned goods on the market's shelf and greens in your sandwich may have come from its 5-plus acres of traditional gardens and orchards—or been harvested from aquaponic grow beds, where crops and fish live in tandem.
"The whole point of aquaponics is to mimic nature," explained Wynne Crisman, son of farm owner Nikki Ausschnitt. Crisman, a former software engineer, designed and built Petit Teton's aquaponics systems to minimize use of well-water resources and increase productivity in a small area, he said.
The name says it all: Aquaponics combines raising fish, known as aquaculture, with hydroponics, which is raising plants in water. Aquaponics is a closed-loop system that recirculates water, Crisman explained. His plants don't anchor in soil; instead, they grow in tubs of rock beds that allow water from fish tanks—with nutrient-rich fish waste—to trickle onto the plants and through the tubs. The water is then captured and pumped back to the fish tanks, and the cycle continues.
"This system is pretty simple, but it doesn't look it," he said, pointing to a network of faucets, pumps, pipes and spigots dripping water onto plants and then collecting it. A look around the small area reveals strawberries, lettuce, watercress, broccoli, onions, tomatoes, rhubarb and celery, among others.
"Every plant is being fed by these fish and what we feed them," he said, describing how gravity helps move the water through the plant beds.
About 1,000 goldfish provide nutrients to some of the crops at Petit Teton, as water circulates from tank through tubs and back again. The organic farm grows an abundance of fruits and vegetables in both traditional and aquaponic gardens.
Crisman's work at Petit Teton began with small aquaponics test areas he developed in 2013. With positive results, he then designed and installed the farm's commercial and permanent aquaponics system in 2014. It includes a 6,000-gallon fish tank that contains 1,000 goldfish, tubs growing a variety of produce and a pump for recirculating the water.
Building this large-scale operation wasn't without its challenges, even for someone with a knack for design.
"The engineering is easy," Crisman said. "It's the biology that's been more difficult."
He struggled in the past with disease brought in from fish he purchased and crafted "sick bay" tanks with warm, salty water to kill parasites. Crisman has since begun breeding his own fish to stock the tanks. He also determined how many fish he needs and what to feed them to increase specific nutrient levels for certain types of crops.
Petit Teton's systems, after just one year, are producing an abundance of food with significantly less water, Crisman said.
He is currently developing smaller and mid-sized systems for home installations, each with its own fish-to-crop system—where nutrients stem from goldfish, bluegill, catfish and mosquito fish.
The family farmers at Petit Teton include, from left, Steve Krieg, Nikki Ausschnitt, Wynne and Sarah Crisman, Cameron Crisman, Juan Cacho and dog Chichi.
Growing food in an aquaponics environment represents the innovation embraced by the family at Petit Teton since they began farming a small portion of 160 acres about 10 years ago.
"We didn't plan to be farmers; I'm an artist," Ausschnitt said, describing her lifelong love of the outdoors despite growing up in Manhattan. "But I think (farming) is genetic. One of my grandfathers was an estate gardener and my mother loved gardening."
She met partner Steve Krieg, an attorney, while backpacking and the two decided to create something together that kept them outdoors and active.
Ausschnitt and Krieg found the land by spotting a "for sale" sign while driving through Anderson Valley for the first time. Since then, they've added an adjacent 190 acres and developed Petit Teton—named after a small hill on the property—into a farm that offers eggs, flowers, meat and hundreds of types of fruits and vegetables.
Petit Teton farm-made fare can be found onsite, at farmers markets and on shelves at the local Yorkville Market, above.
There was so much food, in fact, that Ausschnitt and Krieg constructed an onsite commercial kitchen, completed in 2013, and now produce about 300 to 400 jars per month of spreads, condiments, chutneys, pickles, soups and more—made with ingredients from the farm. Crisman's wife, Sarah, serves as kitchen manager and she and Ausschnitt create items that sell with a tagline: "We grow it. We can it."
Petit Teton has indeed become a family affair, with Ausschnitt's other son, Cameron, a financial analyst, taking care of the farm's orchards and finances. He also serves as portfolio manager of Petit Teton Foundation, which helps support nonprofits, including California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom.
"We think that 90 percent of our job is education," Ausschnitt said, and that includes talking with folks at farmers markets and inviting visitors to stop by (see story below)—anything that helps connect people with the food and the land.
Wynne Crisman feels the same way about sharing what he's learned about aquaponics. He said he is looking for early adopters: "I think an aquaponics system is great, even for people who think they have a brown thumb, because I had a brown thumb."
Crisman speaks to the advantages of aquaponics for backyard gardeners, including it being a simple and water-wise choice in times of drought.
"Plus, pulling weeds out of rocks is super easy," he said. "The entire weed comes out with just a pinch and a pull—and it never comes back."
Crisman continued, "We'd love to have people who are do-it-yourselfers who want to do this in their backyards and just want a little help. We want to help them. We're here because we like what we're doing and we're hoping to make a difference."
Yakety yak, please talk back
Petit Teton is a family farm in Mendocino County that welcomes visitors with a sign that says "Look for us in the fields" and "Bong the gong" as the outdoor doorbell. The invitation is complete when passersby get a glimpse of an animal they would not expect to see here or anywhere else in California: a yak.
Partners Nikki Ausschnitt and Steve Krieg borrowed a couple of yaks a few years ago to graze on the property, and then decided to raise their own small herd. They keep one near the road to attract attention.
"People see her and say, 'What is that?'" Ausschnitt said with a grin.
Petit Teton's breeding animals are registered with the International Yak Association—and here's what they're yakking about yaks:
- Domesticated yaks, aka the grunting ox, have been around for about 4,500 years.
- Yaks are easy keepers that require no special fencing.
- These bovines can live up to 20 years or more.
- Cows average 600 to 800 pounds, while bulls are about twice that weight.
- Yaks are raised for meat, dairy and fiber, and used as pack animals.