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California men float their visions of changing current agriculture methods

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image Plants grow in tilapia effluent at an integrated aquaponics-hydroponics system at the University of Arizona.

Fish and watercress may compliment each other on a dinner plate, but Chris Newman thinks that together they make great fixings for an integrated aquaponics-hydroponics business venture, too.

Greenhouses no longer rule in the Pajaro Valley in California’s Central Coast. Once the home to blooming cut-flower businesses, it’s now dotted with empty nurseries. Chris Newman has hopes of restoring the area to its former glory by combining aquaculture fish farming with the hydroponics of growing vegetables in water.

With the help of neighbors and his brother, Tom, the 58-year-old resident converted a 14,000-square-foot abandoned rose-growing facility into a maze of stream channels, gravel beds and water pipes where he hopes they will ultimately succeed in raising fish and growing watercress for commercial sales.

"I'm pushing the envelope here, but I think this is something that's bound to take off," Newman said.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Newman, who grew up in the Pajaro Valley, left the area for only a brief time where he launched a short-lived, yet successful career writing mystery novels in New York.

Rebecca Nelson, editor of the Wisconsin-based Aquaponics Journal, said there are only a few aquaponic businesses currently operating, but added the trend is expected to grow. "Farmed fish is really where we're going as far as what we'll have access to," Nelson said.

Fish farming grew from the “desire to harvest fish rather than put stress on dwindling wild fisheries and to use the extra water for crops,” and because the damage to the environment is minimal when compared other methods of fish farming, Nelson said. "People here care about food ingredients and where they're sourced." Newman added, "Every 27-year-old kid in San Francisco now has a food blog."

With disappearing farmland and a growing interest in natural, insecticide-free and locally grown products, Rick Feldman of Van Nuys, California, and owner of Gardens by Rick, is seriously considering another kind of hydroponics farming -- vertical farming. In a recent interview with Flesh & Stone he said he's checking out the possibilities of buying or leasing abandoned buildings in the heart of downtown Los Angeles where, through a system of water-only growing methods, vegetables for home consumption can be grown vertically.

“One such building,” Feldman said, “can eventually supply multiple local farmers markets and local restaurants with natural, locally grown produce, something more and more residents are demanding. “It’s far cheaper than traditional farming,” he said, “and hundreds of acres of land aren’t required. Fifty-thousand vertical square-feet can easily replace all those acres of dirt to produce enough food to get started.

“The problem so far has been getting around Los Angeles’ Draconian business rules, regulations and exceedingly high small business taxes,” he said. If a deal can’t be worked out, he said, he’s considering the more business-friendly L.A.-adjacent City of Industry.

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