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Growing Solutions in Tohoku with Aquaponics

As Aragon St-Charles watched footage of the tsunami triggered by the March 11th earthquake in Japan sweeping across the landscape from his still shaking Tokyo home, he could hardly believe his eyes. Two days later, he watched again as explosions rocked the heavily damaged Daiichi Power Plant. Farmers and producers, some representing the 16th generation of a family to work the land, were forced to leave, possibly never to return. This land, some of Japan’s richest and most productive, stood soaked with the tsunami’s salty toxic cocktail mixed as it rushed over agricultural, urban, and industrial areas alike or covered with a fine layer of radioactive fallout. Such soil then, was rendered unsuitable for growing. In a country with a food self-sufficiency rate of less than 40-percent, this was bad news indeed.

“Straightaway it came to me that this was something that could be used in Japan,” said St-Charles. As he draws diagram after diagram of fish tanks, alternative energy sources, of grow beds and their crop arrangements throughout our conversation, it’s easy to see that just under the tidy chinos and button-down shirt of the legal recruiter he is by day rests a farmer just waiting for his moment.

“This” is aquaponics, a system of growing plants and fish together in a re-circulating system. Fish in the tank are fed a high-protein diet of worms, insects or a high-protein fish food. Water from the tank, full of nitrogen and ammonia rich fish manure, drains into a grow bed filled with gravel or lava rock where the filtering process begins. Plants positioned here take up nutrients up from the water as the fish waste is broken down into plant-useful components by naturally occurring bacteria. The cleaned water returns to the fish tank where the cycle begins again.

Today, Tohoku, the geographical name for the northern portion of Japan’s main island most directly affected by the events of March, 2011, finds itself still in the midst of recovery. Much of the debris and sludge have been removed, but plenty of work remains. Some experts estimate that clean-up will take upwards of 19 years, while salinated farm land may need up to three years to be viable again.

Aquaponics system at OGA for Aid’s Sea Side Center.
Photo courtesy of Japan Aquaponics.

Recovery also means rebuilding in every sense of the word. Physical structures – homes, businesses, and government buildings – now dot the landscape while farmers work in their fields to rejuvenate soil. Efforts to revive rural economies and communities, a challenge even in normal times, remain daunting, but not without hope. In a region famous for its traditional agrarian lifestyle, Aragon St-Charles believes aquaponics is a very real and sustainable solution for the future.

“You can put it on soil that is damaged and can’t sustain life or is not allowed to because it’s contaminated. You can put it in Tohoku where the land has been salted and it’s very difficult to grow anymore. The yields are so poor (now) that it’s not worth putting a seed in the ground. Well, you can put this there and it’s going to grow,” said St-Charles.

Taking a year-long sabbatical to set up his company, Japan Aquaponics, St-Charles began designing, building and experimenting with systems of various sizes. During this time he also began searching for an organization in Tohoku where he could set-up a system to begin showing people how it might help.

“We looked at these micro-systems straight away as something we could donate to Tohoku so people could see it and see that it was accessible. We wanted to show people how it works, and that it’s quite easy, too. You can understand it,” he said.

That’s when he called Angela Ortiz, Director of Administration at OGA for Aid in Minamisanriku. A non-profit started in the days just after the March, 2011 earthquake, OGA for Aid continues to help the community reestablish itself in the wake of the disaster. Focusing on economic recovery as well as community development projects, Ortiz liked the idea.

“As OGA for Aid is currently involved in a large agricultural project in Tohoku, we were very interested to hear of St-Charles’ company and the system itself,” wrote Ortiz in an email interview.

In September St-Charles set up his first demonstration system in OGA for Aid’s Sea Side Center. Funded in part by the Australian and New Zealand Chamber of Commerce and a private donor, the system stands inside OGA for Aid’s community center downtown. Measuring two meters by one meter and fashioned from an IKEA wardrobe, yogurt cups, polystyrene, two professional quality grow lights donated by SODATECK, and “a few other bits and bobs”, it’s already producing its first crop.

“The last thing I did was sprinkle a bunch of lettuce seeds on the top. Now they’re about that high,” he says measuring out with his hands a height of nearly 10cm and a smile nearly as broad. Running steadily, St-Charles estimate the system with its 250 liter fish tank and two grow beds could produce 17 crops a year. While it may not feed everyone in the community, it can offer fresh greens in winter when they’re scarce or supplement a family income. For St-Charles and Tohoku, it’s a welcome harvest.

Joan Bailey
Article by
Joan Lambert Bailey lives, eats, writes, and farms in Tokyo. Follow her random adventures getting dirty, eating good food, and visiting farmers markets at Japan Farmers Markets.


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4 Responses to “Growing Solutions in Tohoku with Aquaponics”
  1. Nicole Daniells Nicole より:

    That’s a very interesting article. Could you tell me roughly, how much would one crop produce? Or what size system would be needed to feed one family? Thanks Joan!

  2. Hi Nicole,

    I would be very happy to answer these questions. With regard to the crops – the middle shelf contains a floating raft with 11 planting holes for lettuce, and also a space to start the next seeds. From this level we should be able to get almost 200 lettuce a year – not bad from a growing area that is just 0.5 square metres! The top level is the same size but is filled with a growing medium (lava stone in this case). You could plant many different types of things in here: Lettuce, herbs, spinach etc etc. So you could add in this to your crop estimate as well. Currently they are sprinkling baby green seeds in here and just cutting them all down after 3 weeks. This crop fills about two normal sized cooking bowls.

    If you wanted to substantially supplement the vegetable feed for a family then you would need something a lot bigger than this system – you would need something that is probably about 4 square metres of growing space. This could be done vertically like the system above – or more usually using a couple of growbeds that are 1m x 2m.

    Please do feel free to take a look at our website for more details – as well as lots of photos and videos from the Tohoku project.


    All the best,


  3. Aragon, Thanks for your answer! That’s also provided that a family decides to shift their diet to seasonal vegetables and eating more fish, correct?

    • You are right Joan. In fact education about diet and nutrition is probably more important that any type of growing system…. once people decide to change their diets to something healthier and more sustainable, then the progression to organic growing and/or aquaponics can come quite naturally.

      The shift to a seasonal diet can also be difficult for many people who are used to eating the same thing all year round – but it can also be extremely rewarding. Learning new ways to prepare and cook new and different produce can be a challenge – but there is so much information out there that it can be done reasonably easily if you take the time to investigate. Learning traditional methods of preserving harvests can also be a great activity for the family and are invaluable life lessons. Bottling, canning, salting, smoking, pickling etc etc are fantastic skills that used to be passed down through generations and which are largely forgotten by most people these days… but a fun thing to learn!

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