Chiayi’s YMCC Ecological farm: Hydroponics, aquaponics and the (black soldier) fly on the wall
Updated: Oct 8, 2020
Although a modern, first-world country, Taiwan is still very much an agricultural-based society. In fact, agriculture remains a main industry, with 24% of the land used for farming. Farmers are respected in Taiwanese culture, as many families have agricultural roots dating back for centuries. But with Taiwan’s ability to seamlessly blend the new with the old, it was no surprise to learn that a small town on the island is leading the way with modern farming techniques.
During my last visit to Chiayi with Reed from Toah Tours as my guide (you may know him from the Netflix series), I was impressed to find an experimental farm that has mastered hydroponics, aquaponics, and sustainable bio waste treatments. Read below to learn how this small town is transforming Taiwan’s agricultural society with modern and sustainable practices.
Hydroponics and aquaponics: an introduction
Hydroponics (水耕法) is a form of agriculture where plants are grown without soil. Instead, nutrients, hydration, and oxygen are provided directly to the water-suspended roots of plants placed in inert media. The plants are grown in a controlled environment which accelerates plant growth and reduces risk factors such as temperature, pests, and diseases. And the ability to customize the nutrients and pH level of the water, as well the amount of light, allows for high-quality produce without the use of pesticides.
Aquaponics farming (魚菜共生) is a symbiotic system where fish waste, instead of controlled nutrients, is used to feed plants grown in a hydroponics system. Like hydroponics, aquaponics can produce healthy produce all year long in controlled environments without the risk of soil-borne diseases.
In a traditional aquaponics system, fish are raised in an aquaculture system where excretions from the fish accumulate in the water. The toxic water is then filtered and transferred to a hydroponic system, providing nutrients to the water-grown plants. The filtered water is then recirculated back to the aquaculture system (the fish tanks), restarting the circular process all over again.
Aquaponics systems are complex, and all farmers bear the risk of fish loss due to health and disease. Without proper management, the loss of fish can sabotage an entire aquaponics system. However, it was this very loss that led to a promising discovery for a small farmer in Chiayi, Taiwan.
The Black Soldier Fly
A farmer by the name of Meng-Kun Wu (吳孟昆) (“Mr. Wu”) was managing an aquacultural system when his professional obligations kept him from returning to his farm. Mr. Wu knew that the fish would be dead by the time he returned, and he feared that the smell and presence of the rotting fish would wreak havoc on his farm.
To his surprise, Mr. Wu returned home to the odorless, decomposition of his fish thanks to the mighty black soldier fly (黑水虻). Black soldier fly larvae had fed on the dead fish, leaving no odor and no residue. Mr. Wu later learned that black soldier fly larvae are capable of breaking down organic substrates, composting the waste, or converting the waste into animal feed. Furthermore, the larvae can serve as a food source for aquaculture, animal feed, pet food, and even human nutrition. And with a voracious appetite - specifically, an ability to consume twice its body mass daily - black soldier fly larvae have the potential to solve massive food waste problems around the globe.
There is a Chinese proverb that means to “rise like a phoenix from the ashes” (浴火重生). Although Mr. Wu had lost all of his fish on his farm that day, his discovery of the powers of the black soldier fly gave rise to his new, more efficient, aquaponics system. After perfecting the system, Mr. Wu successfully obtained 13 patents in Taiwan for his black soldier fly larvae models. Some of his black solider fly systems have even proven to be superior to the island’s current biowaste systems, as his farmed larvae can process food waste that is unsuitable for Taiwan’s current system - a system that still converts most of its kitchen waste to pig feed.
Watch to learn more about the black soldier fly:
Here is an example of one of Mr. Wu patented models:
Step 1: Black fly larvae are fed kitchen waste inside a cage.
Step 2: Some black fly larvae fall into the fish tank below, providing food for the live fish. Other larvae mature into adults, who mate and produce more larvae in the cage.
Step 3: The fish feed on the larvae and produce excrements in the fish tank.
Step 4: The water from the fish tank is sent to a filtration tank which converts the potentially toxic water into nutrients for the water-grown plants.
Step 5: The filtered water is sent to the plants suspended in water.
Step 6: After the plants absorb the nutrients from the filtered fish tank water, the excess water is sent back to the fish tank, starting the process all over again.
Mr. Wu’s black soldier fly models have attracted attention from other farmers and industries who wish to use the black soldier for their own aquaponic systems and biowaste needs. As a result, the Chiayi YMCC Ecological Farm farms and sells black soldier fly eggs. Just 20 grams of eggs can decompose 20 kilograms of waste per day!
A sustainable and community-oriented farm
There are no flies on Mr. Wu, who actively teaches his findings and knowledge to his community. Mr. Wu shares his new-found knowledge and developments with farmers around the island as the founding president of the Yi Mi Community College (嘉義縣邑米社區大學). He teaches Innovative Agriculture to students of the community college and also teaches aquaponics and biowaste management to Taiwan’s younger generation at primary schools. And he continues to experiment on his own farm, the Chiayi YMCC Ecological Farm (邑米社大生態教學農埸).
This farm has become a community affair, as Mr. Wu has grown his experimental farm with the help of others. A Chiayi local by the name of Francis (黃靖鈞) runs the farm’s free-range chicken unit while also contributing to the Yi Mi Community College. Francis’ chickens roam freely inside a spacious caged area and eat both black soldier fly larvae as well as the plants grown in the neighboring hydroponic and aquaponic units.
Watch to see this system in action:
The Chiayi farm’s hydroponic and aquaponic systems are also managed by a second generation, (half) Taiwanese-American man named Chris Brooke. Serving as an apprentice to Mr. Wu, Chris is well-versed in these sustainable farming methods and tends to the farm on a regular basis.
The farm also experiments with sacha inchi, a plant rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Sachi inchi oil, capsules and even face masks can be purchased from the farm. With the help of Chiayi’s community, the farm maintains a closed-loop farming method where nothing is wasted or contaminated.
Chiayi’s YMCC Ecological Farm is leading the way in Chiayi and beyond with novel, biowaste treatment options, as well as innovative farming techniques that empower the entire community. For a closer look, be sure to follow Toah Tours for future opportunities to visit this farm.