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Aquaponic Hemp Production Project | Ounce of Hope

Cannabis plant growing via aquaponics

In early 2020, Enterprise Aquatics completed an aquaponic hemp production system design and installation in Memphis, Tennessee. I was lucky enough to be part of the design and system specification while working with Ken Rust via AST at that time. The company that is operating the system is called Ounce of Hope. Ounce of Hope’s mission is to produce high quality hemp based alternative medicinal products. How did Ounce of Hope get connected with Enterprise Aquatics... through a conversation about lake and pond management of course! 

Last week, I was able to spend some time interviewing the facility manager of Ounce of Hope, Cameron Heil. This is the kind of guy that you can work with! He is smart, thoughtful and, most of all, has careful attention to detail. Remember that in RAS (Recirculating Aquaculture System), Aquaponics, and CEA (Controlled Environment Agriculture) details really matter! Cam and I had a great chat, and below is a summary of our conversation.  

What made you contact Enterprise Aquatics?

The owner and founder of Ounce of Hope, Collin Bercier, met with Ken Rust to discuss pond management on his property. Ken likes to chat, and the conversation quickly turned towards indoor aquaponic growing systems. Cam had been working with Enterprise Aquatics the year prior, but had moved to Oregon and worked on a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm, as well as had accounts in water gardening. Ken recommended Cam for the Tennessee based project, and the rest is history. 

What is your experience with aquaponic systems? 

Cam had been working with fish in water gardens and veggies in soil-based farms for over 3 years. This is his first large-scale system/project in aquaponics. 

Which system did you choose to utilize and why? 

Ken Rust designed the system with Paul Begue’s support while he was still at AST. The system was Ken’s vision for what a hemp/cannabis indoor recirculating system would/should look like. The design is based on 25 years’ experience with fish production systems and an expertise in utilizing time-tested, proven designs at practical prices. The only bottleneck was whether Cam could build it and operate it. The fish production systems are twin 2400-gallon systems utilizing PG12000PK bio-clarifiers. One system was stocked with Tilapia and the other with Koi. 

Where did you get the fish? 

The Koi were purchased from Blackwater in Florida and Tilapia from a producer in Tennessee. The fish were shipped in oxygenated bags inside of Styrofoam coolers, encapsulated in a cardboard box. The fish are fed a high protein, floating, pelleted feed.  

What plants are you growing? 

Cannabis sativa is being grown with current genetics from Oregon. In-house genetics are being explored and developed from South Carolina. The goal of developing in-house genetics is to grow different varieties to be specifically used in Aquaponics or indoor growing. Currently, Ounce of Hope is “Pheno hunting” or hunting for the best phenotypes that can be used in indoor growing. In humans, phenotypes are the exhibited traits like hair or eye color. Examples of desirable phenotypes in Cannabis sativa are terpene profiles and A+ flower production (grade A flower goes for flower sales, and grade B is used for pre-roll). Ounce of Hope is seeking genetics that will display a short flower cycle (1.5 months instead of 3 months). 

How many harvests of Cannabis sativa could you expect in an ideal situation? 

In indoor growing, the goal is 5-6 annual harvests, while greenhouse growing could produce 2-3 harvests at most. 

How long has the system been up and running? And how has the aquaponic system been working for you? 

Filtration system for ounce of hope

The system has been operational for about 9 months to 1 year. Indoor recirculating systems require time to mature. For example, charging a biofilter for ammonia conversion takes 4-8 weeks before fish can be stocked. Afterwards, the system requires fine tuning for a number of months depending on the goals of the project. Additionally, the learning curve is high, but not unattainable in controlled environment agriculture. The fish production system allows for max feed load per day and has been able to accumulate enough Nitrate for optimal plant growth. The accompanying hydroponic system has been producing with hydroponic nutrients and is transitioning to aquaponic or fish derived nutrients currently. 

Long term plan for the project? 

Ounce of Hope seeks to be vertically integrated with brick and mortar, online retail stores and indoor production farms focusing on supplying the retail spaces with genetically superior products. The dream is a multi-state enterprise with cooperation from headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee. 

Lastly, why aquaponics and not hydroponics? 

Fish used in aquaponic system

We believe that indoor growing, or controlled environment agriculture, is the future. Specifically, the products grown indoors aquaponically are, in our opinion, a notch above indoor hydroponics and that is a notch above outdoor growing. By producing nutrients on site, supply chain issues can be negated as well as costs cut (hydroponic nutrients are expensive). Aquaponic nutrients are also biologically derived, NOT synthetically derived. This will provide a living nutrient fertilizer stream packed full of macro and micro nutrients, as well as microorganisms and beneficial bacteria that boost nutrient uptake. Additionally, aquaponics seems to be the best for producing grade A flower in hemp and cannabis production. The added complexity of aquaponics with fish derived nutrients is easily justifiable when considering the current alternatives.

What are your clients saying about your products? 

Love it! Studies comparing aquaponics over hydroponics = more cannabinoid, and terpene production when compared with similar hydro operations. That means lots of happy, repeat customers! 

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