About seven years ago Todd Croxall found himself looking for a change in his professional life. He wanted to switch gears from the financial industry and do something he could feel good about in a way that had a larger impact.
He stumbled upon aquaponics, which combines aquaculture—raising aquatic animals in tanks—with hydroponics—growing plants in water—in an interdependent environment. The term was coined in the early 1980s, but its roots go back centuries.
It was all new to Croxall, who owns Croxall Farms, and as someone with no background in farming he finds the constant learning involved appealing.
“Since I wasn’t a farmer to begin with, I had to learn the protocol to everything. I think that was the biggest learning curve for me,” he said. “I was able to start something new and venture through with others that are like-minded in a very small farming community, people from China to New Market, that are specializing in certain areas.”
Aquaponics is “a relationship of balance, and very little added intervention. Everything is self-sustaining through the food we feed the fish,” said Croxall. “We use 90 per cent less water than regular agriculture. As long as we’re controlling the fish food properly and getting good food for them, and a clean ecosystem, we can create a very sustainable, natural product in a controlled environment. We don’t use chemicals or pesticides.”
The sustainable nature of aquaponics has made it increasingly more appealing.
Croxall said that as a community we’re not as confident relying on our neighbours’ food supply as we once were, something that has really come to light this year. With the food shortages in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people took to planting their own vegetable gardens to help sustain themselves.
Croxall would like to see that go one step further with more communities as a whole taking an interest in controlled-environment farming on a larger scale.
“We’d like to demonstrate what we do to other communities to help expand in other communities and create partnerships,” said Croxall. “Our direction right now is that controlled farming has to happen versus it’s a good idea. Twelve golf courses in a small area of tourism may be a good idea, but having food might be a good idea too…I want to be able to show a commercial concept on a larger scale to the Northeastern Ontario region that is suffering from a produce shortage and really high prices, along with not so fresh food. I’ve learned a lot about nutrient density in what we eat and it has to deal with input, which is what we feed the plant, and how long the plant’s been refrigerated for. So in a small community like ours there’s a trend to say, ‘Hey, we can take care of ourselves.'”
In addition to selling the leafy greens that they grow to some local grocery chains and restaurants, Croxall Farms also sells Aquanure, a product line they created to help grow flowers, herbs, and vegetables throughout the growing season. Aquanure products are available locally at Huntsville Home Hardware, Muskoka North Good Food Co-op, Dwight Garden Centre, Soul Sistas, and Valley Feeds.
“Inflationary prices of food are apparently going up about 20 per cent, which is another reason why it’s crucial to make sure your food is being made locally—it would save on the increase,” he added. “That’s where Aquanure will help. What happens in gardens is that people look to create sustainability for themselves or family. So we all put a lot of intention once we make that decision to do it, otherwise…we go to the grocery store, buy stuff that’s good or bad for us based on our own judgment, throw it in the cart, buy it, and go. No connection to the food whatsoever. But when you have to take care of that, you look at it everyday, it becomes a different relationship.”
Once people put something on their plate that they grew, Croxall said it’s an instant connection and they start to care what goes into their food.
“When people take more time feeding themselves, they take more time deciding what they feed their plants. There’s no chemicals, no pesticides. [With Aquanure] you’re going to grow good plants from fish poop and that fish poop doesn’t have E. coli or salmonella so you can’t put E. coli into your plants… You can safely put it on your plants knowing they’re going to grow well and when you ingest it there’s nothing that you’re ingesting that’s not completely natural and won’t break down for you.”
Now that we’re into August and plants are fruiting and some are still vegging, Croxall said this is where the chemistry component comes into play.
“One of the things that happens in less nutrient-dense, less microbe soils is that they degrade over time. Aquanure has an extremely long list of bacteria and microbes that help plant growth during the summer months. You’re trying to prevent pesticides, you’re trying to create an immune system for the plant,” he said. “Plants that are fruiting need more sugars and phosphorus and potassium, and less nitrate. This is when it’s good to add Aquanure Flower, it’s lower nitrate and higher in phosphorus magnesium, and potassium. It brings the sugars to the fruit and helps with the colouring. And the main question is, ‘what am I eating?’ What did [the plant] take from the ground and what am I ingesting. That’s where I want people to go, ‘Aha, I get it now.’ That’s why it’s important to feed your plants something organic because you’re eating it.”
Croxall Farms has joined with Fleming College to further study aquaponics.
“They’ve partnered with a grant program to study aquaculture and aquaponics relationships exclusive to Croxall Farms. It’s the promotion of entrepreneurs and students,” he said. “I think it benefits us both because we’ll need staff that are trained and they’ll need people to get jobs when they graduate. We’re really looking forward to that partnership. They have high-tech equipment for wastewater treatment and they can really dial in our Aquanure product and give us good feedback as to how the customers that are purchasing it are benefiting or how we can improve it.”
Croxall is looking forward to working with other like-minded people to feed communities.
“There is something to be said that it’s not always about the capitalistic version of entrepreneurship,” he said. “It’s not always about one goal.”
Don’t miss out on Doppler!
Sign up here to receive our email digest with links to our most recent stories.
Local news in your inbox three times per week!