With new geothermal system in place, Koi Aquaponics eyes growth

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Joe Yarborough holds up a juvenile head of lettuce grown in his aquaponic greenhouse. While young now, Yarborough says the first batch of crops will be fully mature in four-to-six weeks. Photo by Mathew Burciaga

Joe Yarborough was gifted a green thumb.

Digging through his wicking beds in preparation for the planting season, Joe unearths dozens of seedling pea and bean plants. In a nearby raised planter bed filled with individually-potted strawberry plants, Joe began plucking their flowers off — a process he says will increase the yield of next year’s harvest — when he spotted something unusual.

“I planted these strawberries and used pots I grew cilantro in last year,” he said, gesturing to a small cilantro stalk budding out from under the shade of the strawberry leaves. He laughed at the stalk, explaining that the beans, peas and cilantro plants weren’t intentionally planted; they were accidentally grown from the remnants of his last harvest.

When not on duty at South Big Horn County Hospital, the restaurateur turned radiologist can be found alongside his wife, Kaiselyn, and son, Sawyer, at the family greenhouse.

“I’m very fortunate that I have this,” Joe said of their greenhouse. “It was a serious investment into our hobby.”

Years back, the Yarborough family was faced with several major medical issues. Undeterred by the gravity of the situation and motivated to make a difference in their health, the family started construction on their aquaponic greenhouse three years ago.

In addition to the beans, peas and strawberries, dozens of juvenile heads of lettuce float in a long aquaponic bed at the center of the structure. Their goal: cultivate organic, pesticide- and herbicide-free produce for their family to eat.

“Most of it is for our family right now,” Yarborough said. “Whatever I can’t grow I’ll buy if it’s organic. This is not about making money; this is a love — it’s fun for me.”

Unlike other methods of cultivation, the Yarboroughs’ system requires little maintenance or assistance. As opposed to a hydroponic setup that requires additional chemicals and nutrients, the aquaponic system in the Yarborough greenhouse utilizes koi fish to fertilize his crops.

While the koi make for great fertilizers, Joe joked that they also have inadvertently begun growing koi.

“They lay eggs, the eggs get swept down into the rock beds and they [ultimately] end up in the sump,” he said, adding that they’ve got about 150 fish now.

According to Joe, construction on the greenhouse has halted since it began. Joe said his return to full-time employment at the hospital hindered his ability to finish the greenhouse, something the family plans to address this spring.

“The first year we built this we got done just about [time for] growing season; we got the structure up and started growing right away,” Joe said. “I was working part-time [then] they called me back to the hospital full-time to manage the radiology department. I had to put it on hold.”

“We’re fiddling around right now until we get everything in place,” he added. “I’ve got a computer and electrical, but none of it is hooked up. Nothing is ready to go yet because we got into growing our first year then I went back to work full time.”

In mid-April the Yarborough family installed a geothermal heating-cooling system for the irrigation system. According to Joe, the system will allow for year-round cultivation of citrus trees.

“There’s a guy in Alliance, Neb. that does citrus in the snow; he grows lemons, limes and [other plants] all year round,” he said. “We’re basing our system off of his — he’s got it together.”

In the past, the family has sold their excess produce under the name “Koi Aquaponic Farm” at farmers markets and other places around town. While Joe said he doesn’t anticipate the beds getting full this spring and summer, he anticipates winter to be very productive.