Thumb Genetics is a cannabis farm in Michigan in the United States that’s mostly family-owned. It kicked off in 2020. It employs aquaponics, an agricultural technique used by Aztec and Mayan farmers almost a thousand years ago in what is now Mexico. Nutrients in fish shit fertilise the plants.

One cannabis farm uses the shit of the Nile tilapia as fertiliser to grow cannabis. Photo: Germano Roberto Schüür

One cannabis farm uses the shit of the Nile tilapia as fertiliser to grow cannabis. Photo: Germano Roberto Schüür

Aquaponics is cheaper in the long run

65-year-old Lloyd Owens, who owns the business and plays a part in its management, told that aquaponics often grows more tolerant vegetables, for example lettuce, but this technique sees rare use when it comes to cannabis. It makes economic sense: it doesn’t need fertiliser. The 10,000 gallon system reuses water. “You never drain,” explained Owens. “We’ve been getting the same water in those tanks for about a year and a half.”

Buying fish shit off the shelf is incredibly expensive, which is why Thumb Genetics produces its own. This is considerably cheaper than using chemicals: $80 of fish food a month, as opposed to thousands of dollars for chemicals.

There’s also less call for air conditioning because the water cools things down: the cannabis farm next door is “exactly the same size as ours,” but incurs an electricity bill along the lines of $40,000 to $50,000 a month while “Mine has yet to hit $8,500.”

The initial costs are three or four times more for aquaponics than other methods. The start-up costs and complexity of the science deter most investors. One advantage, however, is that aquaponics is organic.

The economic upshot

The start-up cost is daunting, but after that, growing cannabis with fish shit represents “the lowest cost of operation there is.” And it’s around a week faster than other methods, which is significant if you grow enough.

Which fish?

The fish are around 1,600 Nile tilapia, sometimes also known as mango fish, boulti or nilotica, in four-foot ponds. The fact that no breeding takes place so long as the temperature of the water is kept below 82 degrees Fahrenheit (28 °C) led to this kind being chosen. After about two years, they produce more fish shit but less frequently, making them useless for this purpose. Owens hopes to then donate them to the homeless, generating about 20,000 meals a year. In the meantime, it is employees who will receive retired fish.

Fish losses

A few tilapia have been lost to larger ones eating smaller ones, or males hunting females until they expire due to exhaustion, but not many. The fish are divided by size and age. There are safety nets over the ponds to prevent accidental jumping. “We had a few kamikazes,” remarked Owens.

Owens has an artificial leg

Owens has a prosthetic right leg invisible beneath his jeans, the result of stepping into a hole while jogging, “cutting it in half” and necessitating amputation when he was 35. After suffering a “real bad” concussion when he was playing as goalkeeper for the Davenport University football team in 2008, he resorted to cannabis to relieve the pain. This was the year the state of Michigan legalised cannabis for medical purposes. It became legal for recreational purposes in 2018. Owens walks with a slight limp and leans against the wall as often as he can to take the weight off his plastic leg.

What the future holds for Thumb Genetics

Thumb Genetics’s principal client is Edgewood Wellness, a nearby dispensary (what you’d call a coffee shop) that has a medical licence. There are plans for ten new growth chambers, so fish shit will provide the nutrients for 6,000 plants rather than 3,500.

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