Califonia Bountiful

Moving ocean and earth

May/June 2019 California Bountiful magazine

How becoming a farmer led one chef to the world of aquaponics

Chef Adam Navidi farms much of his own produce, including lettuces, tomatoes and edible flowers, using innovative methods. Photo: © 2019 Lori Fusaro

Seeking a deeper connection between those who eat food and those who produce it isn't a new or surprising idea in today's culinary world, especially in California, the nation's top agricultural state. Even so, most chefs haven't taken their commitment to farm-to-table fare so far as to start their own farms. But then, Adam Navidi isn't most chefs.

Building the farm of the future

When Navidi formed a Los Angeles-area catering company in 1998, his upscale clients often requested healthy menus with fresh produce. However, Navidi struggled to find convenient sources of local, organic fruits and vegetables. So he took the unconventional step of setting up soil beds with drip irrigation in his backyard.

Unfortunately, Navidi's initial foray into traditional farming brought with it the challenges familiar to many farmers. The clay soil of his backyard was hard and inhospitable, and he was constantly battling pests.

"I have a lot of respect for farmers—they're tough son-of-a-guns," Navidi said.

To solve his problem of poor soil, Navidi began to explore hydroponics—a process by which plants are grown in a nutrient-rich liquid rather than dirt. Plants are suspended in growing trays with their roots in contact with a mixture of water and nutrients. The technique allows more produce to be grown in a smaller space, while decreasing water usage, making it an appealing choice for urban farming.

Photo: © 2019 Lori Fusaro

Though hydroponic systems are gaining in commercial popularity today, in the early 2000s, many hydroponic farmers such as Navidi took a DIY approach—building structures out of PVC pipe and polystyrene and tinkering with ever-evolving techniques.

"As we built these systems, we learned what works and what doesn't work," Navidi said. "There's not one system that does everything. You need to have different systems."

Navidi began experimenting in his backyard. He built vertical systems and used reclaimed salad bars as insulated grow beds. He tried an approach called nutrient film technique that uses only a shallow "film" of nutrient-rich water, as well as recirculating flood-and-drain systems that saturate plants several times a day.

When he ran out of room, he installed a system on the roof of his house. Navidi even repurposed the insulated polystyrene boxes in which restaurants receive seafood shipments, converting them into a non-recirculating, plumbing-free hydroponic system for lettuce.

"I filled each box with 10 gallons of water," Navidi said. "Then, I drilled out 10 holes in the lid, planted 10 heads of lettuce and walked away."

Thirty-five days later, each box had produced 10 heads of lettuce from 10 gallons of water—with no active irrigation or electricity.

Navidi's aquaponic growing system begins with farmed tilapia, which produce natural fertilizer. Photo: © 2019 Lori Fusaro

Garden on an aquarium

Through his backyard hydroponics, Navidi was able to provide produce for his catering company and other local chefs, but he wanted to expand beyond the backyard with a dining experience that better connected guests to their meals. After years of searching for the right concept and space, Navidi finally secured acreage in Brea and spent more than six months building hydroponic and aquaponic systems.

Whereas hydroponics relies on synthetic nutrients added to the water, aquaponics uses a living system of fish and microbes to deliver nitrogen to the plants. Think of aquaponics as a garden on top of an aquarium.

A hybrid of hydroponics and aquaculture (the farming of fish and seafood), the aquaponics cycle begins when fish are fed and create waste. Bacteria in the tank convert the waste's ammonia into nitrogen, a fuel source for hydroponically grown plants.

Lettuces grown in trays float in nutrient-rich water. Photo: © 2019 Lori Fusaro

With the first of his aquaponic systems in place, Navidi established Future Foods Farms as a commercial farm and a resource for researchers, chefs and the public to discover the techniques and benefits of aquaponics.

"Since day one," Navidi said, "Future Foods Farms has been about teaching other people what we do and inspiring other people to want to grow their own food."

In 2010, Navidi opened the greenhouse doors of Future Foods Farms for tours and tastings. Navidi guided small groups through the different systems in place and ended the tour with a seven-course meal created from the bounty of the surrounding farm.

Soon, Future Foods Farms fully transitioned its hydroponic system to aquaponics as the farm grew to its current iteration of 10 greenhouses and a 30,000-square-foot shade house that use a variety of aquaponic- and soil-based systems.

When a restaurant location Navidi had always wanted became available, this interconnected aquaponic farm would become the foundation for new ways of thinking about food sourcing and waste in a restaurant.

Fish and chips at Navidi's restaurant, Oceans & Earth, feature the farm's tilapia. Photo: © 2019 Lori Fusaro

Farm to table and back again

In 2014, Navidi opened Oceans & Earth in his hometown of Yorba Linda. Navidi's farm-to-table restaurant procures at least one ingredient of every dish on its menu from Future Foods Farms. Navidi, as chef and farmer, said this forces him to rethink both the restaurant and agricultural sectors.

"Most chefs focus on dishes, but I have the other side I need to think about as well," he said. "If I just focused on cooking, I'd be doing a different menu."

Navidi approaches menu planning as a farmer, considering what seeds are available, what crops are planned and what grows well. In a typical season, the farm produces 30 to 60 different crops, primarily lettuces and leafy greens such as kale, spinach and microgreens, as well as tomatoes, basil, cucumbers and edible flowers.

All the crops on his farm are watered using reclaimed water from the fish tanks, which hold up to 20,000 tilapia at a time. The fish come from Navidi's own hatchery and are fed duckweed grown on the farm. When the fish grow too large for the aquaponic system, they're moved to a bigger tank where they'll grow to 5 or 6 pounds before being prepared and served at Oceans & Earth. The farm-raised tilapia feature in dishes such as ceviche, tacos, fish sandwiches, and fish and chips.

Navidi also often repurposes cooking byproducts and waste. The restaurant produces house-made breads, kombuchas and cheeses. Navidi uses the whey byproduct from cheesemaking to make Lactobacillus, a bacterium he then uses to make a fermented fish emulsion called fish hydrolysate. The emulsion is sent back to the farm, where it's used as a soil drench.

"There's a lot of value in having your own products," Navidi said. "It makes me a better chef and ultimately makes me a better person. And at night, when you rest your head, you get to know you've done something to move that needle further towards sustainability and towards efficiency."

Matt Craggs

Photo: © 2019 Lori Fusaro

A green vending machine

Inspiring others to grow their own food has always been a priority for farmer-chef Adam Navidi. His latest project, an interactive, robotic vending machine for greens that he plans to build and install at his Oceans & Earth restaurant, is intended to engage and excite children about where their food comes from.

The envisioned 10-by-16-foot vending machine would house a 400-gallon fish tank with up to 450 heads of aquaponically grown lettuce above.

"Kids can plant seeds with their name on it, and a robot arm puts it into the wall," said Navidi, explaining his vision. "An iPad will print out the seed's row, aisle and approximate harvest date."

The tablet would also provide children a window into the science of growing food.

"Kids can use the iPad to show how it's controlling the nutrient system—how much nitrates, nitrites, ammonia and dissolved oxygen are in the water. All the science behind aquaponics is there on the iPad for them to see."

So far, the project remains in initial stages, with Navidi raising money though crowdfunding. Once realized, Navidi hopes the project will help children become invested in their seed, visiting often during the 35-day grow cycle, to experience and learn about this innovative and efficient form of agriculture.

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