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Food and Drink

How fish are helping grow basil and more at a Wasilla farm

Melissa Windel runs Leaf Fin Farm in Wasilla, growing basil and a few other crops via aquaponics. (Photo via Leaf Fin Farm)

There’s something fishy about the basil Melissa Windel is growing on her Wasilla farm. And that’s entirely by design.

Windel’s Leaf Fin Farm opened last fall, growing basil and a few other crops via aquaponics — a closed-loop growing system that features fish, water, and plants. She is currently selling basil at the South Anchorage Farmers Market and at the New Sagaya Midtown Market. Leaf Fin Farm produces 10 to 15 pounds of basil weekly.

“I thought (aquaponics) was brilliant,” Windel says. “It simultaneously answered the concerns I had about hydroponics and the buildup of fertilizer waste and similarly answered the major problem associated with raising fish (aquaculture) of what to do with the fish excrement.”

Windel says aquaponics has the same benefits of hydroponics, growing a higher concentration of plants ion a smaller area with much less water consumption than traditional farming. A system can be set up just about anywhere.

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At Leaf Fin Farm, tilapia provide the nutrients to grow the plants. The growing is done inside a pair of Conex shipping containers.

Wendel explains the aquaponics process this way: “Aquaponics takes current natural processes and gives them an advantageous environment to succeed. Fish naturally produce ammonia, but ammonia is toxic to fish in high concentrations. There are two types of bacteria that convert ammonia into a usable form of nitrogen that plants can absorb with their roots. These bacteria are naturally occurring and will develop anywhere with water, oxygen and ammonia. Conveniently, aquaponics systems meet those requirements.

“So, the basics to how an aquaponics system works is, you feed the fish, the fish produce ammonia, the two types of bacteria convert the ammonia to a less toxic form of nitrogen that the plants can then absorb. When the plants absorb the nitrogen, they get the nutrients they need to grow, and they clean the water.”

While Wendel says she is pleased with her farm’s early operations, naturally, there have been challenges.

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“Most aquaponics systems are in warmer climates where they are set up in greenhouses,” Wendel says. “Light is provided by the sun and the main energy uses are fans and pumps. Being totally enclosed, I must provide all the light needs for the plants. This drives up the power bill and is a major challenge.”

From the markets

South Anchorage and Midtown markets: Fall veggies are here … and it is still summer. “Large pumpkins and other winter squash are already appearing, and their numbers will increase throughout August and September,” Barb Landi says. “Zucchini are going absolutely bonkers.”

Landi says “early-season” crops like radishes, lettuce and salad mixes are still available at both markets. And look for green, purple and yellow beans, along with loads of flower options.

Mark Rempel of Rempel Family Farm says this is the week for green beans and pickling cucumbers. “They go away when the weather cools off, so enjoy while we can,” he says.

Anchorage Farmers Market: Ben Swimm says lots of vendors with a touch of everything, including ripe pumpkins from Stockwell Farm.

Sarah Bean of Arctic Organics says “much of our farm is back in action, and it’s now a pleasure to look across the field at rows of healthy-looking dark green plants.” Look for full-size carrots, fennel, rutabaga, parsley, celery and more at this week’s market.

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Muldoon Farmers Market: It’s a riot of colors and tastes at the Muldoon market. “Tomatoes are ripe and juicy and those beautiful greens just keep coming,” says Jerrianne Lowther. “Big, sweet onions, bagfuls of juicing carrots, new potatoes and all colors of cauliflower, cabbages and kohlrabi.” Food vendors will have fry bread and Indian tacos.

Celebrate the bee

Love your zucchini? How about strawberries and raspberries? And what about … most things you eat? Thank the bee.

Saturday is National Honey Bee Day. It an awareness day to celebrate bees and bring together beekeepers and bee enthusiasts of all backgrounds to highlight the important role that bees play in our daily lives.

Flow Hive, developed by second- and third-generation beekeepers, suggests these five steps to help the important pollinators.

1: Put the sprays away: Pesticides are recognized as one of the leading threats to pollinators worldwide. Garden pesticides can be replaced with natural alternatives such as garlic, onion or salt spray, soap and orange citrus oil or even chili or pepper spray.

2: Plant bee-friendly flowers: Planting a bee-friendly garden is something anyone can do. Find plants that bloom at different times of the year.

3: Let your garden get a little messy: Let your veggie and herb plants flower and let the dandelions bloom.

4: Help educate children on the importance of pollinators: If you have a vegetable garden, educating children can be a fun way to introduce the importance of pollinators. We need them to pollinate one-third of our food crops and 90 percent of our wild plants.

5: Become a beekeeper: Discover the fascinating world and experience how caring for your own colony connects with your local environment.

Steve Edwards lives and writes in Anchorage. Contact him at akmarketfresh@gmail.com.

Local farmers markets

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Friday in Anchorage: Center Market, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Midtown Mall

Friday outside of Anchorage: Palmer Friday Fling, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., South Valley Way

Saturday in Anchorage: Anchorage Farmers Market, 9 a.m.-2 p.m., 15th Avenue and Cordova Street; Anchorage Market and Festival, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Third Avenue between C and E streets; Anchorage Midtown Farmers Market, 9 a.m.-2 p.m., BP Alaska; Center Market, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Midtown Mall; Jewel Lake Farmers Market, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., 8427 Jewel Lake Road; Muldoon Farmers Market, 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Chanshtnu Muldoon Park; South Anchorage Farmers Market, 9 a.m.-2 p.m., O’Malley Sports Center; Spenard Farmers Market, 9 a.m.-2 p.m., 2555 Spenard Road

Saturday outside of Anchorage: Healy Farmers Market, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Mile 249.2 Parks Highway; Highway’s End Farmers Market, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Delta Junction; Homer Farmers Market, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Ocean Drive; Tanana Valley Farmer’s Market, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., 2600 College Road, Fairbanks

Sunday in Anchorage: Anchorage Market and Festival, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Third Avenue between C and E streets

Tuesday outside of Anchorage: Food Bank Farmers Market, 3-6 p.m., Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, 33955 Community College Drive, Soldotna

Wednesday in Anchorage: Center Market, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Midtown Mall; Northway Mall Market, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., 3101 Penland Parkway; South Anchorage Wednesday Market, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., near Dimond Center Hotel; Wednesday Market at Airport Heights, 3-7 p.m., Fire Island Rustic Bake Shop, 2530 E. 16th Ave.

Wednesday outside of Anchorage: Highway’s End Farmers Market, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Delta Junction; Homer Farmers Market, 2-5 p.m., Ocean Drive; Soldotna Wednesday Market, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Soldotna Creek Park; Tanana Valley Farmer’s Market, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., 2600 College Road, Fairbanks; Wasilla Farmers Market, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Iditapark/Wonderland Park

Thursday in Anchorage: Thankful Thursdays market, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Midtown Mall

Thursday outside of Anchorage: Peters Creek Farmers Market, 3-7 p.m., American Legion Post 33, 21426 Old Glenn Highway


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