Controlled environment agriculture, an intensive, high-tech form of food production that mimics a natural ecosystem, holds promise at a time when land and water resources are increasingly scarce, not to mention costly, in populated areas like Colorado.

Controlled environment agriculture, an intensive, high-tech form of food production that mimics a natural ecosystem, holds promise at a time when land and water resources are increasingly scarce, not to mention costly, in populated areas like Colorado.

Indoor farming that combines aquaculture with hydroponics, the systems allow growers like Gavin and Marshea Vitt of Colorado Springs to create a fully recycling production system within a space the size of a large warehouse. Water from a half-dozen fish tanks, filled with rapidly growing striped bass or tilapia, circulates through a series of pipes, filters and clarifying tanks to beds of greens and herbs growing in water rather than soil.

Jeremy Marsh, who describes himself as the CFO (or “chief farming officer”) at Rocky Mountain Fresh, is another entrepreneur who dived in two years ago.

“You’re using 10 percent of the water and producing ten times the amount of food as you could in a field environment,” said Marsh, who operates locations at Lyons and Arvada.

Some urban agriculture advocates believe aquaponics might be what it takes to intensify the availability of local food, a feat necessary if Denver is to meet its ambitious goal of getting 20 percent of its food from local sources by 2020.

“It is in scaling up that you have the potential to earn a living,” adds Marsh, who specializes in growing cucumbers and tomatoes.

Controlled atmosphere farming is among the inventions that will be featured during Colorado State University’s three-day Ag Innovation Summit, scheduled for March 18-20 in Ft. Collins. The event is intended to identify evolving trends that will influence the agriculture industry in the years to come, according to CSU President Tony Frank.

Aquaponic systems are not cheap to build or run. Monthly utilities typically cost $2,000 or more.

“To have a properly designed building, that’s big dollars. It’s very capital intensive,” said J.D. Sawyer, owner of Colorado Aquaponics, a company that provides installation and training. “And at the end of the day, it’s still farming. There are a lot of things that can throw off your production.”

Tyler Baras points to just one example: unexpected power outages. “In half an hour, your whole crop is gone,” said Baras, who experienced that catastrophe at a farm in Florida that lacked a back-up power source. Other problems that can cause fish kills or plant die-offs include temperature fluctuations, disease introduction or filtration blockages.

Baras is now farm manager for The GrowHaus, a Denver nonprofit hydroponics farm and food hub. The 5,000 square foot aquaponic greenhouse produces living root Bibb lettuce sold at King Soopers, Whole Foods and other stores along the Front Range. As a nonprofit, the farm also trains interns, provides community education and gives away free food. It relies heavily on volunteers, with just one and a half paid positions on staff in the greenhouse.

Baras is skeptical about the sector’s potential to grow. If similar indoor farms sprout all over the city, and as the community nears its goal of 20 percent local food availability, prices for what is now considered a unique specialty item are likely to plummet. Even as a nonprofit, operating tax-free and receiving grants and donations, the GrowHaus barely survives financially, he said.

“At what point do we lose our local premium, which makes it even less economical to do this? I don’t know how it’s going to happen,” he said.

Even so, many factors make the concept attractive in Colorado. With 300 days a year of bright sunshine but an otherwise short growing season due to the high elevation, the Front Range is in an ideal location geographically. Reuse of water is a big incentive as the state grapples with shortages. Labor costs are typically lower in hydroponic systems compared with field cropping. The systems also fit underutilized spaces like rooftops, empty lots and warehouses.

Risk of pathogens is minimized, which offers a food safety benefit. A well-designed system requires very little energy, meaning there’s virtually no environmental footprint.

Sawyer said his aquaponics systems start as small as 20 gallons and range up to 11,000 gallons or more, which means anyone can start small, learn the ropes and then scale up. That’s appealing to people who are interested in easing into hyper-local food production, a popular trend.

Marsh said when he hit 10,000 square feet of growing space he was able to support himself financially with his system.

Vitt, of Colorado Springs, first read about the idea in an in-flight magazine. He and his wife were in the process of selling their family’s lawn care business and decided to convert a 10,000 square foot warehouse east of the city into an aquaponics farm. About 3,000 square feet of it is dedicated to growing greens.

By leveraging existing investments and business contacts, they were able to build a system that includes expensive but long lasting and efficient full spectrum LED lights. They’ve started selling hydroponic greens, as well as fresh fish on ice, to local restaurants. Their goal is to eventually sell 60 fish a week and 220 heads of lettuce daily.

Part of the appeal is operating a natural system that doesn’t require chemical inputs, Gavin explained on a recent tour. “Once we charge the system, it recycles itself with very little replenishment,” he added.

After its first year in operation, Daily Harvest Aquaponics is still going through ups and downs, but should be operating in the black within the next two to three years, he said.

Sawyer believes city and state officials intent on promoting local food should consider offering financial incentives to help get more of the systems off the ground.

“The energy to do this is there on the human side,” he said. “We’ve all just been bootstrapping this stuff ourselves.”

The systems aren’t seen as a replacement for more traditional forms of agriculture. Marsh thinks they could be used to expand or supplement existing farms, extending the growing season and creating new revenue streams.

“It’s great for that because you are creating your own fertilizer source,” Sawyer agreed.

While Colorado’s new cannabis industry is sucking up lots of resources right now, Marsh anticipates a day when excess space becomes available for food production again. When that happens, aquaponics will be a natural fit, he said.