ST. FRANCISVILLE, Mo. -- Melissa and Travis Riney did not know their latest hobby was unique until people started asking to see it in action. So the couple invited local school groups and turned the experience into a science lesson, and area farmers who struggled to envision the setup have stopped by, as well.
Hundreds of tilapia swim around in six tanks inside of a large greenhouse, and several types of vegetables and herbs float in beds, too. The water that flows between the two is connected, and the fish benefit the plants and vice versa.
The entire setup is a concept called aquaponic gardening. Aquaculture -- the term for raising fish -- and hydroponics -- the term for growing plants in water -- combine into an integrated system. Fish waste provides organic food for the plants, and the plants naturally filter the water in which the fish live.
The Rineys have been raising tilapia since February and recently celebrated their first fish harvest with a fish fry. They call their operation Spring Water Produce and are looking into selling their products locally.
"My husband was looking for something to do after he retires, and we also were looking to utilize a spring we have on our property," Melissa Riney said. "Our daughter is allergic to beef and pork, so ?something to do with those wasn't an option."
In addition, the couple wanted to use the large greenhouse they purchased and set up on their property in 2015. They were growing potted plants inside, but there was space to do more. The Rineys then began researching what it would take to raise fish. They toured aquaponic setups in Wisconsin and Iowa before deciding aquaponics was doable for them.
"We said to ourselves, ‘If the fish can grow and do well in Wisconsin where it's colder, they will do just fine in our greenhouse in Northeast Missouri,' " Riney said with a laugh.
Travis Riney, a controls engineer at Roquette, a company that deals with food ingredients and pharmaceutical binders with a location in Keokuk, Iowa, built the 200-gallon fish tanks -- each able to hold about 70 fish -- and aquaponics system with the help of his two sons, and the first fish arrived in February. They chose to raise tilapia because it is the easiest fish to care for in an aquaponic system.
"They stay in the tanks, grouped by age, for 36 weeks, and every six weeks we get a new batch," Riney said. "After our first fish matured, we invited family and friends over for a fish fry. The fish were delicious."
Selling in the works
As of now, the family is not licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to process and sell the fish, but the Rineys are looking into becoming licensed, they said. However, the couple do sell their vegetables and herbs at the Macomb (Ill.) Food Co-op.
They plan on creating a Facebook page and website for Spring Water Produce.
"It's a lot of work, but it's been fun," said Riney, who spends between two and three hours each day in the greenhouse tending to the plants and fish.
Eventually, the family intends to move the tilapia into a separate building rather than being stationed in the greenhouse, thus allowing the Rineys to potentially expand the number of fish tanks and plants they have.
"We are doing this as a business we hope we can retire and do full time someday," Riney said.