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The future of farming?

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Posted: Wednesday, May 30, 2018 12:00 am

Last week, David Cato was worried about bees. He’d bought 5,000 of the insects recently, and they were not doing their jobs. 

“Bees are so directionally aware, if you move them even two feet, they get disoriented,” Cato said, “So right now they just aren’t coming out of the hive.”

He needs those bees. He’s a farmer, but not the kind of farmer that can rely on the abilities of wild bees to pollinate his peppers, squash, cucumbers and tomatoes.

In fact, his 7-Acre Farm looks more like a university research lab than Old McDonald’s fabled operation.

Cato grows all his vegetables in a greenhouse, so he bought bees, connected their hive to his structure and hoped for the best. So far, at least, the bees have not ventured out of their hive to investigate the rows of vibrantly green plants running the length of the steamy enclosure.

His greenhouse is just the start of what makes Cato’s operation unique.

He practices what’s called aquaponics, which means he uses tanks of fish to fertilize his plants and then uses plants to purify the water for his fish. It’s all a cycle that, when done properly, results in fast-growing plants, healthy fish and little water or energy waste.

Cato says it’s the future of farming. He could be right.

Cato used to be a senior executive at FedEx, and prior to that he was in the military before an injury forced him to be honorably discharged.

He’d been working at FedEx for 10 years and largely disliking it when a friend pitched him the idea of aquaponics. He’d never heard of it.

But he had always been a tinkerer. For most of his life, Cato has been building stuff.

“When I was little, I could just pick apart electronics and put them back together,” he said.

And he’d built aquariums since he was 7, even running a side business constructing artisan fish tanks for well-heeled clientele until the market crashed in 2007. If he could keep fish alive, then surely he could keep plants alive too, he thought.

Cato quit his job at FedEx. With the friend who suggested aquaponics, he opened 7-Acre Farm.

A year and $65,000 later, Cato has two greenhouses sitting in his front yard on Poplar Street and a burgeoning business.

Here’s how it works. The lower greenhouse holds a tank full of tilapia. Under normal circumstances, the water in the tank would have to be changed regularly, as fish waste dirties the water.

But in the aquaponic system, pumps pull water full of fish waste out of the tank and through a centrifuge, which spins off the solid waste. But it leaves the water infused with the chemicals, mostly nitrogen, that help plants grow.

Cato’s system then pumps that water to his upper greenhouse, where it flows through the roots of his plants. The plants pull out the nitrogen, leaving the water safe for the fish as it returns to the bottom tank.

Not all of his plants live on the only fish-water diet since they require higher doses of nitrogen and potassium, but most of what’s in the greenhouses subsist off this circular system.

Cato’s biggest challenge, once he got the system rigged up, was how to pollinate the plants, hence the bees. Since the insects haven’t cooperated yet, he’s had to pollinate everything by hand.

Even so, 7-Acre Farm is remarkably efficient. Fans cut on automatically when it gets to too hot. Water drains from the plant beds on its own, thanks to an intricate piping system Cato dreamed up. Squash grow on hanging trellis’ attached to the roof that can be lowered on a pulley system.

The whole thing runs on about 200 gallons of water, 1/30 of what a traditional garden would need.

Still, aquaponic farms like Cato’s can produce 600 times more food per acre than a traditional farm.

That’s what Cato means when he says he’s part of the future of farming.  As human populations grow, there are more mouths to feed and less land to grow food. Aquaponics offer a way to produce plants and protein using a fraction of the space than current methods.

“You could put one of these on a rooftop in Manhattan,” Cato said.

Now he just needs to figure out how to sell what’s popping up in his greenhouses. His last crop was mostly lettuce, which he sold to restaurants in Athens and farmer’s markets in Atlanta. He’s now growing tomatoes, peppers, squash and herbs for more restaurants and markets, including the one in Monroe.

Selling meat is whole different challenge, replete with red tape from the Department of Agriculture. But Cato thinks he’ll be able to sell fish by October.

Cato has no plans to return to the corporate world. The obsessive tinkerer has built his most impressive project yet, and he thinks it will sustain him and his family.

Plus, he’s most happy when he walks up and down the rows of his upper greenhouse, running his fingers through all those green leaves.

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