Aquaponics answers prayers for couple, community

BY KENLEA HENSON
Former Reporter
10/30/2017 12:00 PM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen Jackie Tyler shows lettuce grown at Native Oklahoma Aquaponic Harvest, or NOAH, in Blackgum, Oklahoma. She and her husband, Richard, raise crops via an aquaponics system, which combines raising fish and soilless plant growth. KENLEA HENSON/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Cherokee Nation citizen Richard Tyler and his wife, Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen Jackie Tyler, check their lettuce crop at Native Oklahoma Aquaponic Harvest in Blackgum, Oklahoma. They raise their crops through an aquaponics system, which creates safe and healthier food. KENLEA HENSON/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
BLACKGUM, Okla. – It’s been nearly two years since Cherokee Nation citizen Richard Tyler and his wife, Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen Jackie Tyler, broke ground on their aquaponics business called Native Oklahoma Aquaponic Harvest, or NOAH.

Today, their 8,000-square-foot greenhouse, the first and largest commercial aquaponics farm in Oklahoma, is doing everything they “prayed” it would.

“We built this with the concept of 30 percent of everything we do would back and offset the food pantry and help our community,” Richard said.

In 2013, Richard operated the Vian Peace Center, a food pantry serving around 100 families monthly in and around Vian. That same year the area suffered job losses, and the center had to serve about 780 families a month. The increase hit hard Richard’s and the community’s finances.

“At the end of 2013, we were able to help 265 families with Christmas dinner and toys, but it depleted all my finances. So in March 2014, I was homeless and I was sleeping at the pantry in my truck. A lady rescued me, and God gave us the vision (of aquaponics) to turn us around,” he said. “I started a small hoop house to show it would work, and everybody was excited about it, but you couldn’t get a commercial system because nobody was willing to lend on it. So when me and Jackie got together she said, ‘you know I think the Lord wants you to re-apply,’ and we did and here we are. It’s been a real blessing.”

Aquaponics combines raising fish and soilless plant growth in an integrated system. The fish waste provides organic plant food, and the plants filter the water for the fish. With this aquaculture and hydroponics mixture, the food is safer and healthier, Richard said.

He said by growing food in water there are no bug and erosion problems, and the food absorbs more nutrients. “What happens is since the roots are in water they can absorb 100 percent of the nutrients, so that makes (the produce) 25 to 35 percent more healthy. And without any chemicals, preservatives and pesticides on it, there are no cancers, childhood obesity or a lot of things that are associated with pesticides and preservatives.”

The aquaponics business has also allowed the Tylers to reach their goal of providing the community with safe and healthy produce as part of a “Give 30” program they developed. The program gives 30 percent of what is grown to the community, supplementing the Vian Peace Center and the Vian Public Schools’ backpack program.

Richard said he’s also working on contracts with entities such as Harps Foods, the University of Oklahoma and Ben E. Keith Foods. However, he said it’s going to take more greenhouses to supply the Oklahoma-based companies.

“Where were at right now we need more growers to meet that higher demand. We’ve had interest from large Oklahoma-based companies that want one million heads (of lettuce) a week, but we can’t meet that demand until we get more of these going, but they are there,” he said. “In Salinas, California, where 98 percent of your lettuce is grown, they’re going through a tremendous drought. Where they’ve been in a seven-year drought now they’re looking at another seven to nine-year drought, so their supply chain is going to start breaking down on lettuce. With the indoor environment, it’s safer because we aren’t subjected to that (drought), and it doesn’t matter if it rains or snows. We are still inside of a building, so we can grow 365 days a year.”

He said he hopes the CN and other tribes would install aquaponics to create jobs, profit and increase health benefits.

“It opens job opportunities. It helps the economy. We were reading an article today, and Oklahoma is the highest in the unemployment rate and there’s less job security. We need to move those coastal businesses because it’s over a billion dollars a year back into Oklahoma, and it creates jobs for this area and for our people,” he said. “If the tribes grab a hold of this they could put this produce in their commodity warehouses, their casinos, their hospitals, their elderly feeding programs and all over the schools, and the people would get the best nutrition they could.”

Take an Aquaponics Tour
Native Oklahoma Aquaponic Harvest offers tours to schools, groups and individuals wanting to learn more or interested in starting an aquaponic greenhouse. A business tour is $75 and includes the process of owning and operating an aquaponics business. A regular tour is $10 and covers the facilities with no business information. Visit http://www.noahfarmok.com.

NOAH Farmers Market
Native Oklahoma Aquaponic Harvest also opens its farmers market on Fridays and Saturdays at its Blackgum facility. Foods for sale include strawberries, kale, tomatoes, radishes, cucumbers, okra, lettuce and fish. Local farmers bring crops as well as goat cheese, beef, Berkshire pork and regular pork. For more information, visit http://www.noahfarmok.com.

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