Swimming UpStream with Steven Looi’s water farm

steven-looi-upstream
A two-minute cruise by bike down the street from my parent’s house and I discover a very special social experiment.

What’s that saying? You have to travel halfway around the world to find what you are looking for and then you find it in your backyard? I was at my parent’s house in Ontario this past Spring, and on my quest to find the coolest aquaponics set ups in the city (which I managed to find at Fresh City Farms!), my trail led me “UpStream” to Newmarket.

Steven Looi from Richmond Hill has set up UpStream, an urban water farm inside a large garage of offices on Main Street North. In this garage startup, you’ll find a special surprise: pools of fish nurturing fresh greens.

The aim of Looi, with his experiment, is to show a viable model for food stamps of the future. To show that food staples which are healthy and fresh can be grown right at home or in the middle of the city. No dirt. Worms need not apply. We are talking about food grown on water, with fish for protein – fish that you eat.

Growing fish and plants together is an ancient way called aquaponics. It was actually discovered in ancient China (where Looi’s family is from) that if you add some fish into the rice paddies the rice will grow better.

The excrement of the fish gives organic nutrients to the plants, completing a cycle of life the way nature intended. Looi, 33, who comes from the world of high-tech “fell ass-backwards” into technology he tells Green Prophet. Always interested in sustainable business, he started a video game company, a company with “no physical footprint.”

Two years ago, he started learning about aquaponics, or AP, and with some smuggled tilapia fish that he bought over the US border “as pets” Looi started farming at his home in Richmond Hill. Along with the fish he’s grown tomatoes, lettuce, kale using the fish waste as nutrients, using water, some pumps and grow lights.

upstream-aquaponics

But he wanted to do more than grow fresh kale at home: “I wanted to have an impact. So I thought about the local foodbank.”

Looi went to the York Region Food Network and wrote up a grant proposal which they accepted. The fruits of his labor are now apparent in the Newmarket garage he operates out of.

Construction started on April 2013, and he’s attracted interest from local people like carpenters and schools that “just want to be a part of it,” says Looi.

upstream-steven-looi-aquaponics

Late last August was his first harvest and later in October he brought the fish. Due to the trouble sourcing the fingerlings, he probably won’t harvest the fish this year but will “keep them as fertilizer.”

Otherwise “I’d have to substitute petroleum-based fertilizers,” Looi tells Green Prophet.

The York Region Food Network remains his partner.

While he is not sure how much extra food the unit can make to make a real dent in the food insecurity issue in Canada he would like to have an impact on providing people jobs, supplementing the food bank, and offering locally grown food which is in essence organic, but reasonably priced.

I throw in a hand of food and the fish jump to the top of the pool, about the size of a large kiddie pool but a couple meters deep.

upstream-aquaponics

It’s astounding to think that such underground activities are happening in Newmarket, where Big Box shops have taken a hold of the consumer mentality. Can my hometown be saved by swimming UpStream? Will the people support it?

UpStream is attempting to teach those willing how to do AP at home. He estimates that a single person needs two acres of soil to support their own food bill for the year. While AP can be done at home, and augment about 25 percent of a person’s food bill.

It’s especially attractive in Middle East locations like Israel where this year, the shmita year, Jews are forbidden from gardening or tilling or reaping harvest from the land.

upstream-ap-newmarket

Hydroponics and aquaponics which uses water is exempt from this religious proscription. In the large facility in Newmarket, he sees as a pilot, Looi is hoping to scale up to 20,000 to 40,000 square feet. He is also hoping to get into the medical cannabis business in Canada. Growing pot on water –– with organic fish nutrients? Sounds like a great opportunity for using less fertilizer and potentially less pesticides.

For now Looi keeps everything under control at his facility measuring in steps how he will grow. He invites visitors and the curious to drop by his farm, quaintly situated beside a tiny stream, the Tannery Creek, I used to wade around in as a kid. I was hunting for old bottles and would cash them in at the local convenience store for treats. Recycling at its sweetest.

More on Upstream here on their Facebook page.

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