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Ambitious aquaponics plan

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A Mission Valley farmer is planning an ambitious aquaponics project that, if fruitful, would be on the forefront of a burgeoning movement in sustainable agriculture.

"At full scale, we should produce 2.5 million heads of lettuce a year, which would make us a good size producer in the United States," says Tom West, owner of Aquarius Farms.

West already raises organic produce on his acreage between Ronan and Polson. He hopes to secure financing and set up the aquaponics system by next spring.

Aquaponics is a method of farming that connects aquaculture and hydroponics into a symbiotic system by turning byproducts from fish waste into nutrients for crops. Aquarius Farms' first priority will be to test the system on crops that are relatively easy to grow, like lettuce, leeks and onions. As for the aquaculture part, West says he'd use a native species of shiner in the tanks, which would be harvested for high-quality fish fertilizer. He thinks this approach will be more profitable than aquaponics farms that have attempted to raise species of tilapia for human consumption.

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"A lot of folks in aquaponics have failed because they were overly focused on fish protein," he says. "It's worth quite a bit more if you use bio-digestion to turn them into a fertilizer product."

West is a Whitefish native who joined the military after high school and wound up working in missile defense, learning a lot about rigorous engineering processes along the way. A few years ago, he started to turn his attention to agriculture.

"Call it a midlife crisis if you want—I'm only 35but I'm concerned about sustainability," he says. At Aquarius Farms, he practices hill farming, which uses steeply slanted raised garden beds to get the most of small plots of land.

One of West's partners in the aquaponics farm is Kalispell-based eco-friendly irrigation company Sure Water Systems. For about 10 years, Sure Water has worked on landscaping and agricultural projects in the Flathead Valley with a mind toward conserving water as much as possible, says co-owner David Laing. Though aquaponics is a water-based system, it can actually use far less water than traditional farming methods.

Laing acknowledges that Sure Water has never created an aquaponics system before, but he makes it sound fairly attainable. "Basically," he says, "this is the creation of a very large, healthy fish tank."

Story updated 6/18.

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