Farm of the future

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Bronson man ventures into sustainable ways of growing food

By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

Ken Ihlenfeldt has had many professions throughout his long life, most carrying him far from the small Texas farm he grew up on. 

He served his country in both the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, flew planes for Trans World Airlines, owned a company that built sailboats and even attended film school for a time.

He’s a man of varied interests.

He established Pegasus Farms more than a decade ago on 40 acres near Bronson with the intention of raising horses and, in a way, returning to the life he had known as a child. 

But plans change.

Farming is still part of the equation, but one won’t find horses grazing in Ihlenfeldt’s rolling green hills. He does, however, still find relevance in the name Pegasus Farms.

“Wherever Pegasus struck his hoof, a spring was created,” Ihlenfeldt said Saturday, alluding to the mythological horse’s creation of the Well of Inspiration, a feat he hopes to duplicate in his latest endeavor.

 “We need to get back to regional food production, and we want to create a model devoid of pesticides, herbicides and petroleum chemicals,” he said. “It’s like that old thing of teaching a man to fish, instead of just giving it to him.”

About a year and a half ago, Ihlenfeldt started looking in to aquaponics, a hybrid type of farming that marries the practices of aquaculture and hyrdroponics, as a way of practicing a sustainable form of farming that could also be taught to others.

“I’ve always had a concern for the environment,” Ihlenfeldt said, explaining that much of modern agriculture has taken its toll on the planet’s fragile ecosystems, though the effects, as small farms were increasingly bought out by large corporations, are now becoming more apparent. “I think things grow in inches and disappear in feet.”

He’s currently in the process of constructing one of what will be in two or three years 24 greenhouses, as well as offices and dormitories adapted from steel shipping containers. The greenhouses will be in groups of three Ihlenfeldt refers to as pods. The center greenhouse in each pod will contain tanks of tilapia, a hardy freshwater fish that can be harvested and, more importantly, produce nutrient-rich waste that will be pumped through a system of “raceways” (small canals) located in each pod’s other two greenhouses that contain floating platforms loaded with vegetable crops.

“The money is in herbs, if you want to make good profit,” said Ihlenfeldt’s lead scientist on the project Dr. Peter Rubec. “Aquaponics, at least on paper, can be highly profitable.”

But only a few aquaponics farmers, the ones who know what they are doing, according to Rubec, have been successful.

Still, he said, there has been an upswing in interest.

Rubec, who has about 30 years of experience in fisheries and aquaculture and who teaches courses in aquaponics, said there are many advantages to the practice.

For one, if practiced by many regionally, it reduces the need for fossil fuels used in agriculture directly through farm equipment and synthetic fertilizers and during the transportation of food crops from other places. Much of what the U.S. consumes is brought from other countries, Rubec said. 

“We’re in a situation now where we’re past the peak of oil production,” and, he added, as fuel prices go up, so does the cost of everything relying on it for production and distribution. Regionally grown food also reduces the U.S.’s dependence on other countries. 

The degradation of soil is another issue aquaponics can help with. There’s a 70-percent decline in organic matter in soils worldwide because of modern-day agricultural practices, Rubec said. “We’re repeating (on a larger scale) the things that happened during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.”

More and more, big farms aren’t rotating crops, but relying on fertilizers applied to the same fields season after season. Aquaponics, where the roots of floating plants are fed a steady diet of nutrient-rich water, takes soil, which can also harbor pests, bacteria and fungi, out of the equation. And the nutrients, absorbed by the plants, are contained in a recirculating system, unlike many practices where much of the nutrients get washed into sensitive ecosystems, such as lakes and rivers. The crops, essentially, filter the wastewater, which is then pumped back into the fish tanks.

The nutrients in aquaponic systems, coming from cold-blooded aquatic animals such as fish, are also safer, according to Rubec. Organic fertilizer from warm-blooded animals, such as chickens and cows, is known to sometimes carry dangerous pathogens that are a threat to humans.

Growing the plants in controlled environments such as greenhouses, for the most part, eliminates the need for dangerous pesticides and herbicides and, comparatively, uses little energy and allows a bigger yield in a smaller area.

Why, with regard to growing food, is all of this important?

“We’ve got some serious food shortages developing here,” Rubec said, “but people don’t realize that.”

He said things will only get worse as the planet’s population swells and climate change increasingly devastates crops through storms, fires and drought, the latter of which having an impact on the world’s stores of fresh water.

The Pegasus Farms operation will differ a bit from some other aquaponics farms in its use of biodigesters, devices that process and stabilize solid waste. The advantage in a biodigester, according to Rubec, is that solids from the aquaponics systems or from outside sources can be used to create energy-producing methane for use in heating, lighting or for running pumps. It also creates Carbon dioxide, which he said can be beneficial to the fish, and the digesters also make more of the nutrients from the solid waste available. Phosphorous, for example, which would normally not be available in a typical system, could be extracted from the solids and pumped over the roots of fruiting plant species that require the nutrient.

Ihlenfeldt said that the farm, if all goes well, should in a few years be employing between 50 and 60 people and, in addition, will offer several courses on aquaponics, permaculture and integrated farming: a beginner’s course, for small do-it-yourselfers at home; and intermediate and advanced courses, for those wishing to voyage into the commercial realm.

“We’re not worried about the competition. There’s plenty of room for everybody.”

He said his first classes on aquaponics are, tentatively, scheduled to begin in a couple of months, after the first system is up and running.

“The science is proven,” Ihlenfeldt said. 

But aquaponics is only part of this story. The other, less-proven portion, involves the future production of algae at Pegasus Farms for use as a fuel.

The project, in association with the University of Minnesota, aims to move the algae-to-fuels program forward by seeking to extract more bio-oil from algae for processing by refineries than what is now able to be produced.

Funding for the project, most of which would come from the U.S. Department of Energy, isn’t set in stone, yet, Rubec said, but he and Ihlenfeldt remain hopeful.

Biodigesters, again, efficiently converting animal waste to plant food, are an important component in potentially furthering the productivity of algae for use as a fuel.  More productive strains of algae developed by UMA will play a part, too.

Corn, according to Ihlenfeldt, produces about 18 gallons of biofuel per acre. Algae, on the other hand, currently produce about 1,200 gallons per acre. The team for the project hopes to be able to increase that to 2,500 gallons by 2018.

“It’s a very efficient way of disposing of waste and converting it to energy,” Ihlenfeldt said. “It’s a very clean industry.”

For more information on classes at Pegasus Farms, call 352-486-2400.