Connor Jones cares about his environment. When he learned that agriculture accounts for 80% of the U.S. water consumption, Connor knew that this was unsustainable. Just 21, he began the transformation of his family’s 10-acre property towards sustainability. He established gardens, food forests and ponds and began raising livestock—all with the lowest possible water consumption.
Today, the Jones family’s East End Eden permaculture farm in Ojai is using state-of-the-art permaculture methods, the newest being an aquaponic system.
“Connor pretty much runs things around here,” said his dad, Colin Jones, on a recent tour of the property. “It was just last year his mom and I got him a book on aquaponics for his birthday. He was pretty taken with it.”
Connor says he first heard the term “permaculture” four years ago. Permaculture refers to a self-maintained agricultural system modeled on natural ecosystems. Since then, Connor interned in permaculture in Australia and has taken other workshops and classes. His zeal was infectious, and he has spread the permaculture gospel not only to his dad but to his mom, Cindy, and friend Shawn Clark, who now works the land alongside him.
An aquaponic system raises fish and crops in a closed system that loses only a small amount of water, as low as 2%, to evaporation. The water their farm uses comes from an on-site well and the rainfall they capture.
The Joneses visited existing systems before designing and building one for themselves, including a slanted roof for rainwater catchment. Their system consists of a 720-square-foot greenhouse with three 350-gallon tanks holding 150 to 200 bluegill, channel catfish, carp and goldfish, and four raised beds growing produce, such as greens, tomatoes, peppers, beans, strawberries, melons, herbs and grasses.
According to Connor, two rare crops they’re growing and propagating are exciting for Ojai for very different reasons: Vetiver is a very hard-to-find grass used in permaculture to retain soil moisture and improve permeability, and the goji berry is a sweet Asian fruit that sells for up to $30 a pound.
“The goji is a new trendy superfood but actually has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries,” said Connor. “These are great new crops for this valley: incredibly profitable, low-maintenance, low irrigation and drought tolerant.”
The setup followed for any aquaponic system is essentially the combination of aquaculture—raising fish in a controlled environment—and hydroponics—in which plants are raised in water. Hydroponics normally requires nutrients to feed the plants, and periodic flushing leads to waste disposal issues. Aquaculture needs to have excess nutrients removed from the system and clean fresh water added daily. Combining the two systems in aquaponics eliminates these drawbacks and mimics natural forces in a closed system.
In the East End Eden system, water continually flows via pumps from the fish tanks through pipes that let the water trickle down through the grow-beds. In the grow-beds bacteria live on the surface of the growing media and convert the ammonia fish wastes in the water into nitrates that can be used by the plants. The plants then extract nutrients through their roots, cleaning the water. Three times an hour bell siphon valves allow the clean water to drain back from the beds into exit pipes that carry it back to the fish tanks.
According to Colin, these valves are designed to open only when the correct water pressure is reached in a standpipe, inserted into the growing beds. This maintains the water level on the plants for the desired amount of time, allowing for oxygen absorption by the plants and the filtered water to return to the fish tanks. That portion operates without electricity.
“In our system the plants are grown in beds of a high-fired clay ball medium called Plant!t,” said Colin. “Every now and again we’ll put in a small handful of red worms. The worms go through the beds and if there is any bacteria build-up blocking the roots, they will break that up. And they do their business and the plants use that as nutrition as well…. The only input we have is fish food.”
The worms are also part of the system and are raised in a worm bin on garden debris.
This closed system has additional advantages: Many pests are excluded from the greenhouse or can be easily controlled, and the strong water recirculation in the tanks allows for higher stocking densities of fish.
“The estimation of the amount of yield this system will produce, when it is totally up and running, is enough that we will be able to feed 15 to 20 people,” said Connor. “It’s a completely balanced system because we are raising produce and protein…. That’s on 1000 gallons of re-circulated water.”
Colin says they’re getting closer to complete food independence by moving from purchasing heirloom seeds and plant starts to seed-saving and propagating, and breeding their fish on site instead of purchasing fingerlings from Northern California.“We also plan on raising rabbits under the planting beds in the next phase,” said Connor. “We want to raise as many small-space yields as we can. And we’d like to install solar energy for the pumps.”
Already reaping the benefits of permaculture, Connor is anxious to share the techniques and knowledge he’s gained. Along with offering a two-week permaculture course, tours and consulting, he recently reached agreements with his surrounding neighbors, including Ojai Olive Oil, to help transition their lands as well.
“We want to be a model for transitional and regenerative agriculture through the whole valley,” said Connor. “Where we can take a situation that is less than ideal and turn it into something that produces food for us and habitat for the rest of the ecology. Our goal is to bring back the free-flowing springs and creeks filled with trout that used to crisscross the valley.”
You can visit East End Eden permaculture farm and see Connor’s examples of sustainable practices during the Ojai Valley Green Coalition’s 2013 annual Green Home & Building Tour on October 26, from 10am to 4pm. For more information visit OjaiValleyGreenTour.com.
For more on the farm, visit OjaiPermaculture.com.
East End Eden is also on Facebook.