An Aquaponic Farming Dream Grows Green

Choctaw brothers and founders of Symbiotic Aquaponic Shelby (left) and Kaben Smallwood (right) stand beside their aquaponic systems. (Courtesy Symbiotic Aquaponic)

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 “Tourism, Agriculture & Natural Resources” print edition of Native Business Magazine.

While the business side of aquaponics is a new frontier, the agricultural system of growing fish and plants together in recirculated water dates way back to Tenochtitlan, the former Aztec empire (and modern-day Mexico City). Miles of intricate canals, known as chinampas, wove throughout the ancient city, built with layers of lake mud and dead plant matter that allowed for the cultivation of at least seven crops annually.

Today the chinampas style of agriculture itself is experiencing a resurgence, and Choctaw brothers Kaben and Shelby Smallwood are leading the way.

The enterprising brothers launched Symbiotic Aquaponic in 2012 with little more than a dream, and a $4,000 investment from the Choctaw Nation to test the waters. Those funds went toward building their first aquaponic system in a greenhouse at Kiowa Public Schools in Oklahoma.

“It was a labor of love,” recalls 34-year-old Kaben, an economist by trade. “We worked without pay and without any guarantee of success.”

Today Symbiotic Aquaponic designs and builds customized backyard and commercial aquaponic farming systems that can grow United States Department of Agriculture-certified organic food, while reducing water usage of traditional farming by up to 99 percent.

Come 2013, the brothers earned a $40,000 Yoshiyama Young Entrepreneur Award from the Hitachi Foundation, which Kaben describes as “a very defining moment.”

They immediately put that money to good work. Shelby, an expert designer and engineer, developed a new, proprietary, patent-pending aquaponic system, “and we became original equipment manufacturers,” says Kaben, proudly adding that all their equipment is manufactured in the United States, except for PVC components. “Now we have a fully developed supply chain to design and engineer scalable, modular aquaponics systems to fit almost any crop, topography, geography or location.”

Symbiotic Aquaponic has designed and built nearly 100 aquaponic farming systems in seven states ― from small, 20-square-foot beds for $1,200 to their largest commercial project to date that cost $199,000.

Clients include “hobbyists, gardeners, survivalists, environmentalists, educators, schools, nonprofit organizations, colleges, Future Farmers of America, 4-H organizations … commercial farmers and community groups.”

The farming trailblazers have also partnered with several federally recognized Tribes, including the Seminole, Choctaw and Cherokee Nations of Oklahoma, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, and the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma.

Two years ago, Symbiotic Aquaponic landed a $199,000 rural business development grant from the USDA to build a 30-foot by 96-foot commercial greenhouse and aquaponic facility with 4,500 gallons of water for the Seminole Nation to help spur economic growth for the Tribe. Construction is currently underway.

Kaben considers this partnership one of their greatest successes. “Seeing this project with the Seminole Nation come to fruition is one of the most rewarding professional experiences I have had.” It is a full-circle moment, he says. “It’s incredible to use our aquaponic technology like we intended from the start to benefit other Tribes and underserved populations in our own backyard.”

USDA-Certified Organic: Those three words make Kaben’s heart sing. “We were one of the first companies to get our aquaponic systems certified as USDA-organic after the National Organic Standards Board ruled that aquaponics and hydroponics could be deemed organic if they met minimum requirements.”

The brothers believe they have completely disrupted the organic marketplace, thanks to the proprietary process that creates their grow media ― pH-neutral shale baked in a kiln at an extremely high temperature ― that immediately meets requirements for organic growing.

“We design and engineer systems that can achieve organic certification almost overnight, something we call ‘Express Organic.’” Kaben says most organic farmers must wait three years for their soil quality to meet organic standards. “Express Organic” service allows clients to rapidly scale their organic growing operations and speed-up profit-making.

And while profit-making is critical to their customers’ and Symbiotic Aquaponic’s bottom lines, the brothers are primarily invested in empowering food sovereignty. In addition to designing and engineering USDA-certified organic systems for clients, the Smallwood brothers operate their own systems to raise organic herbs, tilapia, leafy greens and starter gardens, which they give away free to the community. Kaben shared: “We want to stay true to our mission of food production and food sovereignty by giving people access to fresh food in the rural areas we serve.”