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December 12, 2013
Hobby Farm

Sandy and Terry Stapley started with alpacas, but now their hobby farm has grown to include aquaponics 

It was only supposed to be a little hobby farm, a place to putter in retirement.

But what started out as a few alpaca at Sandy and Terry Stapley’s Grantsville home has blossomed into a full-time job and then some.

“We always wanted a hobby farm, and we got it,” Sandy said.

Three years ago last month, Sandy, now 62, was looking for rovings to make berets for her granddaughters’ Christmas presents, but could only find it on an alpaca farm.

“When I went to the alpaca farm, I was just really smitten with the whole process — the animals, the process of the fiber going from raw fiber to yarn,” she said. “So I called Terry and I said, ‘Hey, how about just getting an alpaca farm?’ and he said, ‘That’s OK.’”

The couple, then living in Saratoga Springs, started looking for property suitable for the animals and found 10 acres on the western edge of Grantsville. They made an offer, and it was accepted; they listed their house for sale, and it sold. By March they were moved in. With little agricultural background besides years of gardening, they started their hobby farm.

They bought four alpacas at first, three of which are still roaming in their field, built them a barn and a fence, and learned how to shear them. The Stapleys said the animals proved to be relatively low maintenance.

“If we just had the alpaca, it really would be just a hobby. It takes a half hour in the morning to feed them, and a half hour to feed them in the afternoon, so they’re pretty self-sufficient,” Sandy said.

Then came chickens, providing the couple with fresh eggs. Not long after, they got a couple of goats, and learned to use the milk from those animals in a variety of ways.

“We make kefir, we’ve made mozzarella cheese, we’ve made yogurt, we drink it,” Sandy said. “It’s great.”

The chickens and goats were more demanding than the alpacas — the chickens’ eggs had to be gathered, and the goats had to be milked at roughly the same time twice a day. In March, the couple started their most difficult and time-consuming project yet, but one that has also been an invigorating challenge: aquaponics.

Similar to hydroponics, but lacking chemical fertilizers, in aquaponic food production, plants are sprouted in a small, aerated cup of soil but then are moved to a holding tray on a shallow basin of water. The water flows from tanks holding trout and koi, and the natural byproducts of their droppings, broken down by bacteria, fertilize the plants as the water goes through the system.

As the plants absorb the nutrients, the water is cleansed, giving the fish a constant flow of clean water that pumps back into the tanks.

“We feed the fish, they poop, it feeds the plants, the plants feed us,” Sandy said. “It goes round and around.”

The trickiest part was in getting the right conditions for the fish. The first batch of trout, all 200 of them, died from various reasons.

“Then we got the koi to help what they call cycle the water,” Terry said. “Like in an aquarium, you put something else in there to start it, get the bacteria going. They’re much more tolerant of temperature and ammonia.”

Aquaponic systems have a water efficiency rate an estimated 95 percent higher than conventional ground growing operations. Terry said they only have to add a little water back into the approximately 2,500 gallon system every few months.

The result is a greenhouse lined with lush greens, even when the temperature dips well below freezing — though, the couple admits, the cold has its challenges, even in a greenhouse. The crops were converted to virtually all cool-weather greens and a rocket stove was implemented to heat water and the ground.

Air currents on the wood-burning, J-shaped stove force the flames sideways, and the smoke and heat are diverted to underground vents, simultaneously warming the dirt and stripping the exhaust of its particulates so by the time it pumps outside it is more steam than smoke.

In addition to the water heated by a coil around the exterior of the stove, a solar-powered water heater helps keep the temperature fish- and plant-friendly — though, in the recent bitter cold, some of the plants have slowed their growth. Sandy said the operation, dubbed Deseret Peak Aquaponics, produces enough to supply seven families with greens. The couple said they would like to expand and add four more greenhouses of the same size for a more commercial operation, but cannot currently because of zoning restrictions, though they can sell produce in a more farmers market-type basis. Ideally, they would also grow the operation to a level that would allow them to teach others and help make the practice more popular in this part of the country.

Regardless of whether they can expand in the future, the Stapleys’ hobby farm will keep them busy through their golden years.

“The easy chair is in between coming and stoking the fire and going and checking on the animals, and usually we’re falling asleep in the easy chair,” Sandy said. “But it’s been fun.”

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