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Choctaw Brothers Pioneer Aquaponic Farming System to Tackle Food Insecurity in Indian Country

Their passion for farming began during childhood on their grandfather’s farm in Talihina, Oklahoma, where they would help plant, grow and harvest a virtual salad bowl of fresh produce, such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers and onions, strictly for the family to enjoy.

Years later, in July of 2012, brothers Kaben and Shelby Smallwood, members of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, launched a different type of farming business with friends Keith Scott and Regina Cook called Symbiotic Aquaponic, LLC. They hope that this unconventional farming technology will not only help feed all Native American tribes someday, but also, conserve precious water resources at the same time.

“Aquaponics is a form of nontraditional agriculture in which we utilize a recirculating water system to symbiotically raise fish and produce,” explains 29-year-old Kaben. “We pump water from the fish tank, which contains the fish emulsion, into the greenhouse, where plants and a grow bed are flooded with this nutrient-rich water.” 

Symbiotic Aquaponic LLC receiving the Hitachi Foundation Young Entrepreneur Award. (Courtesy Kaben)

The real beauty of aquaponics, he says, is that it uses one-tenth to one-one-hundredth of the water used in traditional agriculture because water is recirculated. “You can double your yields because plants don’t have to struggle to get water and nutrients, as they are constantly inundated with them.”

What had some critics of the brothers’ farming vision scratching their heads at the outset is that no soil, artificial fertilizers or pesticides are used to grow their food. “It’s more organic than organic,” says Kaben.

While the Smallwood brothers didn’t invent aquaponics – the farming concept dates back to ancient Aztecan and Far Eastern cultures – they hope that their modern, patent-pending spin on it will resurrect an appreciation for the technology. “Instead of soil, we use a blend of expanded shale and clay … making really coarse, pebbly-type rocks that are very good for water retention,” explains Kaben.

Courtesy Kaben

Bright green lettuce that graced the Kiowa High School salad bar.

Kaben, who earned a law degree and MBA from Oklahoma City University, never intended to land in the aquaponics business. While waiting for the results of his bar exam, he decided to do a little reading in his downtime and picked up a book on the subject. “I read the entire book from cover to cover in one day, and from that point on, I was hooked.” His lightbulb moment: “I started thinking about all the benefits for my tribal community … conserving resources and growing food seemed like a double whammy and it was something that I couldn’t look away from.”

With the help of 25-year-old Shelby, the brothers invested $6,000 ($2,000 of their own funds and $4,000 from the Choctaw tribe) in their proof of concept: They installed an aquaponic system in a greenhouse at Kiowa Public Schools. “We knew that if we wanted people from Oklahoma—a huge agricultural state—to buy into this as a feasible means of food production, the only way was to show them.”

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Not only did they win over the skeptics and impress teachers, students and administrators in the process, but recently, they were among five businesses to win the 2013 Yoshiyama Young Entrepreneur Award from the Hitachi Foundation. Winners were given $40,000 and free business mentoring.

According to Jennifer Harms, the foundation’s program officer, “Our program identifies entrepreneurs who are operating viable businesses and also helping to improve the lives of low-income people in the U.S.”

Kaben has a slightly different take on being a social entrepreneur: “We don’t think that doing good and making a profit need to be mutually exclusive. We believe the best way to make a profit is by doing good.”

Courtesy Smallwoods

Kaben Smallwood shows off the root structure of the plant, demonstrating how the roots can grow straight down rather than stretching out. This is because they do not have to compete for nutrients and resources like they do in soil.

Harms refers to the Symbiotic Aquaponic founders as “pioneers,” and said the judges were impressed by their authenticity and passion to use aquaponics to improve their native community.

To date, Symbiotic Aquaponic has also built a turnkey, six-bed aquaponic system for Eastern Oklahoma State College in Wilburton to the tune of $10,000. And its founders plan to use the $40,000 Hitachi award to complete their own commercial 40-bed system in Kiowa that will provide fresh, quality produce and a protein source for tribes in Choctaw territory. 

But, Kaben says, there is an even bigger picture: “Our grandiose, large-scale, dreamer’s-dream is to build turnkey systems for every tribe that has an underserved population in terms of food security.”

These days, the Smallwood brothers are getting a lot of support—especially from their grandfather, the farmer.

“Initially, he was one of our toughest critics, one of the guys saying that you can’t grow something without soil. But now, he is more excited than anybody else.” For the Smallwood siblings, the real value of their farming business is something that money can’t buy. As Kaben says, “It’s a way for my brother and I to carry on our grandfather’s legacy.”

Lynn Armitage is a freelance writer in Northern California and an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.