Friday, August 01, 2014

Aquaponics (Part 4): A Part of the Solution to the Food Desert in Urban Milwaukee

Will Allen's book
"On a two-acre Community Food Center in Milwaukee, just beyond a busy city street, goats graze, chickens peck and scratch, bees buzz and ducks and rabbits thrive. This flurry of activity takes place while 20,000 plants and vegetables grow in greenhouses along with thousands of yellow perch, which are sold to local restaurants and grocery stores."

Will Allen, a college basketball star at the University of Miami, dreamed of playing in the National Basketball Association. Even though he was drafted by the Washington franchise in 1971, he never did play in the NBA.  He did play professionally in the American Basketball Association and Basketball League Belgium (BLB).

Allen's career path took him in a different direction: as an urban farmer. He left a job in marketing at Procter & Gamble in 1993 and bought a plant nursery in North Milwaukee that was in foreclosure.The facility became the anchor for Growing Power, Inc., a non-profit community food system whose mission was to create access for people in a low-income neighborhood to healthy, high-quality, safe and affordable food. “There was no real food to eat within five blocks of the largest project in the city,” Allen, winner of the MacArthur Foundation's Genius Grant in 2008, said in a recent interview with Natural Awakenings magazine. 

Growing Power, Inc. helps people  grow, process, market and distribute food in a sustainable manner. Growing Power has multiple farm sites  in Wisconsin and Illinois. Some of the non-profit organization's farms are located in urban neighborhoods and others  in rural settings. "In addition to the farms where we raise our produce and livestock, we assist other projects in Milwaukee and Chicago," Growing Power said in its Web site.  [Read more about the evolution of Growing Power, Inc. in Allen's book The Good Food Revolution].

Using tilapia, yellow perch to grow tomatoes, salad greens
Photo: Growing Power, Inc.
While soil-based cultivation comprises a large part of Growing Power's farming operation, aquaponicss also provides an important source of vegetables and protein for the community. "We  use tilapia and yellow perch in our aquaponics systems because they are relatively easy to raise and because we can market them to restaurants, market basket customers, and they are a favorite in ethnic markets," said the non-profit.

Here is the step-by-step p how the fish help in the cultivation of plants.
  1. By using gravity as a transport, water is drained from the fish tank into a gravel bed. Here, beneficial bacteria break down the toxic ammonia in fish waste to Nitrite and then to Nitrogen, a key nutrient for plant development. On the gravel bed, we also use watercress as a secondary means of water filtration.
  2. The filtered water is pumped from the gravel bed to the growing beds, where we raise a variety of crops from specialty salad greens to tomatoes. The water is wicked up to the crops roots with the help of coir, a by-product of coconut shells and a sustainable replacement for peat moss.
  3. Finally, the water flows from the growing beds back into the tank of fish. Growing Power uses this type of aquaponics system because it is easy to build and only needs a small pump and heat to get the system running.  
Read more about how aquaponics is providing fish and plants in St. Paul, MN, Las Cruces, NM, and Northwest Haiti.

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