Lettuce growing in water

Something fishy about downtown Toronto’s Waterwheel Farms

Solutions to growing local produce may be as close as Queen Street West

When you think farm you may not think of downtown Toronto, but Alec Wheeler is trying to change that perception.

His Waterwheel Farms uses aquaponic techniques to grow leafy greens and herbs in the facility near Queen Street West and Dufferin Street. The farm employs fish and microbes to grow the plants, which in turn filter the water for the fish – no soil required.

“It looks a little ‘labby’ in here but this is the identical ecosystem you’d find in a lake,” Wheeler said during a recent tour for the Toronto Observer. “You have fish, you feed them, they produce waste, the waste feeds the plants and just as importantly, the plants then filter the water for the fish. It’s a closed loop cycle.”

At Waterwheel Farms, instead of aquatic plants they are growing crops for human consumption.

“So that’s aquaponics in a nutshell. It’s a living ecosystem between fish, microbes, and plants.”

Aquaponic farming is a closed loop cycle in which the fish act as the fertilizer for plants. The environment is similar to a lake. (Waterwheel Farms)

Wheeler began a small aquaponics farm in his apartment five years ago, when he got tired of his store-bought greens going rotten too quickly. All of his education on aquaponics farming came from research and translating knowledge gained from growing up on his family’s open-field farm in Northern Ontario. He works as a financial analyst for a renewable energy provider. He jokingly refers to himself as “a renewable energy crusader by day and an urban farmer revolutionist by night.”

In May 2017, Wheeler expanded from his apartment to a 1,000 square foot research facility and farm. On-site at there are two tanks containing 400 tilapia fish who aid in growing Bok Choy, arugula, sorrel, spinach, lettuce and Waterwheel Farms’ most popular product, their tender kale. Anyone can purchase their fresh produce by visiting on Saturdays.

The seeds start their life cycle in peat moss. When they’ve grown to the point where their roots are the appropriate length they’re transplanted into pipes with running water where they have more room to flourish. The vegetables grow under different kinds of lights, at controlled temperatures that mimic the longest summer day in Toronto, for optimal growing conditions.

“Because we are indoors we’re controlling the lighting and heating and all that kind of stuff. In Toronto we are at the 43 latitude. Our longest day is just shy of 16 hours. We have these lights timed so they run on 16 hour cycles,” Wheeler said. “We can get, like, seventeen harvests for certain plants as opposed to the one or two you’d get traditionally.”

plants growing in water
Waterwheel Farms doubles as a research facility. Founder Alec Wheeler experiments with different colours in the light spectrum to see which yield the best plant growth. (Katherine Forte)

Wheeler finds that aquaponic farms have the ability to provide farmers with more, using less space.

“In traditional agriculture – nothing against it – you’ll read on the packet it says plant every 18 inches or whatever, it’s mainly because there’s a limited amount of nutrients in that soil and those plants are competing for those nutrients. With aquaponics it’s more of a smorgasbord for the plants because the nutrients are coming to the plants. So you can pack them in closer and produce more food and faster,” Wheeler said.

He boasts that his lettuces grow in 20 days, rather than three months. 

Plentiful crops aren’t the only benefit of aquaponic farming. Since crops are grown indoors, they’re resistant to poor weather and climate change. The closed loop system also uses 90 per cent less water than traditional agriculture. The only water that leaves the system is what’s used by the plants, and the fish are edible, as well as the vegetables.

There’s no need to worry about toxins from the fish poop or harmful pesticides either. Just like in nature anything toxic in the fish waste or water would “crash the system” according to Wheeler. The same can’t be said about many methods of traditional open-field farming. Though crops can flourish with chemicals in the ecosystem, these chemicals often run off into our rivers and lakes.

Wheeler thinks his style of urban agriculture could change the way Toronto eats, and its impact on our lives could be huge.  More people don’t have their own aquaponic farms due to lack of awareness, he believes.

“Like everything, there’s an education barrier. “ Wheeler said. “That’s kind of why we have the facility here so that people from Toronto and in Toronto can come and see the farm.”

That education barrier and lack of awareness is exactly why Rhonda Teitel-Payne and the other members of Toronto Urban Growers celebrated the first Urban Agriculture Day, on Sept. 15, 2017. Farms and gardens, including Waterwheels, opened their doors for tours, and urban farmers from Toronto got together to host a week of events.

What began as a community of urban farmers became Toronto Urban Growers in 2008. The group helps potential city-based farmers and gardens locate resources and connect to each other, so they can share tips, tricks, and anecdotes.

“We started to realize one of the biggest barriers we had in terms of getting projects going was lack of awareness of what urban agriculture is and what it can do and what it’s capable of,” Teitel-Payne said. “We thought that Urban Agriculture Day would be a great way both to celebrate and build that urban agriculture community in Toronto but also to get out the message of ‘Hey look what we can do when we’re growing food in the city. Let’s do more of it.’”

According to Teitel-Payne, urban farming can have more of an effect on us than just what’s on our plate. While Toronto probably couldn’t be self-sufficient when it comes to agriculture (some of the most optimistic statistics estimate we could only produce 10 per cent of our own food), there are other changes that could come with bringing some of the farm to the city.

Not only is diversifying our food sources a bonus, but Teitel-Payne finds that food connects us in different ways to different issues. That connection through food and urban agriculture could empower others to become more vocal on a number of issues.

“Food is that pathway into greater action.” Teitel-Payne said. “What comes out of that is people saying ‘There’s something about our neighbourhood we wanna change.’ Whether it be climate change, political action, access to food, or income or transit, there’s a whole constellation of issues that food touches.”

So where do we start?

Both Teitel-Payne and Wheeler agree condos could hold some potential for the future.

“Let’s start having a discussion with the developers and owners and let’s start cutting out a portion of the space for each condo to have it’s own farm,” Wheeler said. “The condominium right next to us has a beautiful and massive grocery store in it. Well, let’s just add to it. Rather than them having to ship in their food, let’s have it produced on site.”

Until then, Wheeler and Teitel-Payne hope that when people see urban agriculture in action it’ll inspire them to get on board.

“I envision it being a snowball effect,” said Wheeler. “You plant a couple of seeds and let it grow.”

from research and translating knowledge gained from growing up on his family’s open-field farm in Northern Ontario. He works as a finacncial analyst for a renewable energy provider. He jokingly refers to himself as “a renewable energy crusader by day and an urban farmer revolutionist by night.”