Aquaponics Brings Fish To Farm To Table In Tampa

Will Carey has spent most of his life feeding people -- first as a chef, later as executive director of Tampa Bay Harvest, an organization that gleans and distributes farm and restaurant food that would otherwise be thrown away.

But these days he's also committed to teaching people to feed themselves, a mission ripe for fruition as the urban farming movement takes root in cities across the nation.

"Not everyone wants to take all this on, but that doesn't mean communities can't do it in a central location," says Carey, whose Sustainable Living Project occupies a plot of land along the Hillsborough River, across from Lowry Park Zoo.

Here, visitors will find not a community garden, but a community impact project, where herbs and vegetables sprout from the ground, from containers and in vertical grow towers, as well as inside a "hoop" greenhouse that shelters a newly installed aquaponics system designed to add protein -- in the form of fish -- to the urban garden.

"The purpose of having several different grow systems is to show people as many different ways as possible to grow things," Carey says.

All of the systems are "scalable'' to the size of the growing space available -- from a modest vegetable garden plot in suburbia, to a tiny potted herb farm on an apartment balcony.

But it is the highly efficient and productive water and gravel aquaponics greenhouse -- known as the Homestead Model -- that may prove to be the centerpiece of the 21st century urban garden.

It's not a new technology, just refined a bit from its initial development in ancient Egypt. Yet its popularity is growing in leaps and bounds, says Phil Reasons, executive director of Morningstar Fishermen, a Dade City nonprofit that exports aquaponics know-how and initiates food production projects around the world.

"That's because it works," Reasons says. "Growing plants without having to pull weeds all the time, and having fish as a part of it, has a lot of appeal."

Morningstar's program has a broad reach, attracting bankers and bikers, left-wing tree-huggers and conservative right-wing Christians, says Reasons.

"I'm glad that we can bring all those people together for at least one common cause: We all have a need for food," he says.

Growing Sustainable Living Projects

Budding urban farmers from West Coast to East Coast journey to Morningstar's Pasco County facility to soak up the lessons of sustainability. About half are focusing on food production for themselves -- most of them families with a few acres of land and a concern about food safety and quality, Reasons says.

Many of the others are missionaries, engaged in humanitarian efforts in places where hunger is abundant and food is scarce.

And then, there are people from Philadelphia, Chicago, Tucson and other cities that have sustainable living projects like Carey's, dedicated to teaching people how to conserve water and energy while feeding themselves.

Carey acquired his certification in aquaponics from Morningstar, and he has wasted no time implementing the Homestead Model at Tampa Bay Harvest's riverside gardens and education center.

The 26x48 aquaponics greenhouse is capable of producing 800 pounds of fish protein and 2,400 pounds of fresh produce -- enough to feed a family of four for a year.

It consists of a 3,500-gallon tilapia tank that is plumbed into two liquid grow beds, called runways, which contain the seed starters for lettuce, spinach and other edibles that tend to take up a lot of real estate if planted in the ground.

"That's where the aquaponics come in,'' Carey says.

The whole system flows from the nutrient-rich fish tank, through the vegetable runways, and then through the filtration system back into the fish tank.

"Every time the fish poop, they fertilize our water. That's where the beauty of the system is -- 95 percent of the water is reused," he says.

Carey hopes to have the greenhouse stocked with tilapia by April 22 -- Earth Day -- which will mark the center's first anniversary. Eventually he hopes to produce enough fingerlings to stock other people's homestead farms.

The project's location across the street from the zoo has generated a lot of drive-by interest, he says. It has also attracted a number of student volunteers from the University of Tampa, the University of South Florida and Jesuit High School.

"It's encouraging to see young people getting involved in it. Old timers like me have got it down, learning how to survive in the world. But when you get to be 20, and you think broccoli comes from the freezer, a place like this can make a big difference," Carey says.

Cultivating Urban Gardeners

People everywhere are growing more attuned to what they eat and where it comes from, and Central Florida's climate is especially amenable for budding urban gardeners.

"There are connections everywhere when it comes to the local food scene, says Ryan Iacovacci, another Morningstar alumnus who has embraced urban food production as a way of life.

The 27-year-old USF grad shares a home in Sulphur Springs, where he and two roommates have transformed a small inner city yard into a thriving urban farm.

There are fruiting plants, like figs, pineapples and mangoes; a variety of annual vegetables cultivated in pots; wild yams, tree spinach, flowers that attract pollinators, Spanish needle and other so-called weeds are allowed to flourish at will.

"We've kind of established more of a food forest dynamic that's producing year round. Ideally it will be a constantly producing property," Iacovacci says.

For now half a dozen ducks -- golden runners -- keep the household well-supplied with eggs. But soon, a Morningstar-inspired aquaponics system will put fish on the menu.

Like Carey and Reasons, Iacovacci is planting the seeds of sustainability he hopes will take root in the neighborhood on a much larger scale.

"We make garden tea, seed vegetables and make cuttings. And we are working with Phil (Reasons at Morningstar), helping out to learn the aquaponics systems."

The roomies plan to take the formal Morningstar classes in April "to learn to teach the classes here in an urban setting to further [Morningstar's] mission,'' Iacovacci says.

Sulphur Springs, with its reputation for high crime, poverty and urban decay might seem an unlikely place to propagate the aquaponic gardens of the future, yet people have been growing food there for a long time.

There are pineapple forests in the springs, planted by someone, perhaps decades ago, he says. And there are residents from the Caribbean who grow many of the same plants found in his own garden.

Some of his neighbors come to visit his little farm, to ask questions, to acquire seedlings and cuttings, and the occasional duck egg.

"I've seen an uptick for sure of people in the neighborhood growing in boxes and hydroponics,'' he says. "There's a big dream of having an urban farm in the community. There are people approaching me now about coming together to purchase land."

Jan Hollingsworth has been reporting on Florida's agriculture and environment since the 1970s. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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