Aquaponics farm brings sustainable, local eats to Calgary's top restaurants

Calgary's a land-locked, arid region with a chilly clime — not exactly suited to raising fish or growing leafy greens.

But a new sustainable farm is supplying some of the city's top restaurants by doing just that.

Paul Shumlich is one of the founders of Deepwater Farms, a 10,000-sq.-ft. aquaponics facility in southeast Calgary.

"It's the combination of aquaculture, which is the raising of fish, and hydroponics, which is the soilless growing of plants," Shumlich explained.

Monty Kruger/CBC
Monty Kruger/CBC

"Combined we're able to create a closed system that's symbiotic, where we feed the fish, and the fish provide us with waste that we can convert into plant fertilizers … we're actually providing a better environment for plants to grow faster, use less water [and] the end result is a tastier plant."

Deepwater Farms raises 900 kilograms of Australian sea bass (or barramundi) every month. The waste is broken down with micro-organisms to create nitrates that fertilize the more than a million seedlings grown less than every two weeks under LED lights in the facility.

Monty Kruger/CBC
Monty Kruger/CBC

The fish and greens — baby kale, arugula, watercress, red pac choi, mustard greens — are then packaged in the facility and delivered to local customers.

The plants require no pesticides, the fish are free from pollutants and all of the water used is recycled back into the closed-loop system.

It also grows faster than traditionally-grown produce — but everything requires close monitoring to ensure the system is balanced and working perfectly.

Shumlich, who studied entrepreneurship at Mount Royal University, said the project started in his backyard where he tested out the technology.

"It started as a desire to know where our food's grown, who's growing it and how we can get involved," he said.

"Because we're growing it locally … the plants retain nutrients better than being trucked in from California or Mexico."

Monty Kruger/CBC
Monty Kruger/CBC

While he was a student, Shumlich said he started cold-calling restaurants to see if there was interest in his plan — and there sure was.

"They really do like local and they wanted to support us in whatever way they could," he said of the local restaurant community.

The fish and produce are being served around the city, at restaurants like Model Milk, Ten Foot Henry, Briggs, Shokunin and Yellow Door Bistro.

The products are also sold directly to Calgarians at spots like Billingsgate Fish Market and Cherry Pit at the Calgary Farmer's Market.

Monty Kruger/CBC
Monty Kruger/CBC

"It's fantastic to be able to source from someone who has been so consistently delivering a high-quality product who is so close to us," said Blair Clemis, the chef de cuisine at Model Milk.

The award-winning restaurant, recognized as one of Canada's best, focuses on seasonal local cuisine. But since Deepwater Farms is an indoor facility, Clemis said they're able to serve its products year-round.

Right now, the farm's kale is featured in a dish with smoked honey, fresh stracciatella and pumpkin seeds.

"Getting our kale cut the morning it's delivered is very rare in a city like this and it's great to see," said Clemis.

"Having something of this quality from this area year-round is quite special."

Monty Kruger/CBC
Monty Kruger/CBC

Shumlich's next step is a crowdfunding campaign to expand the facility, which is already the largest of its kind in Calgary.

He said he hopes to eventually build aquaponic farms around the world for other areas with extreme climates, where food security is an issue.

Calgary has been criticized for lacking access to healthy, affordable food in parts of the city, with one University of Alberta study calling the city's downtown a "food desert."

In 2016 the city's food system action plan amended bylaws to allow for commercial operations like Deepwater Farms as part of its plan to promote a local, secure, healthy and environmentally sustainable food supply.

Shumlich said he's delighted that Calgarians are chowing down on his farm's local, sustainable eats.

"It's exciting work, it's rewarding work, and it's great to see our food on the plates of the best restaurants in Calgary."