By CELESTE BOTT
Capital News Service
LANSING — For Detroit residents, easy access to fresh Great Lakes bluegill and catfish could be closer than they know.
With enough seed money now in the bank from through Food Field’s FISHSTARTER campaign, the aquaponics project could take off this spring.
The system has already been constructed. Food Field’s farmers needed the funds to supply the fish and purchase additional equipment.
Noah Link and Alex Bryan created Food Field by transforming an abandoned school site in the Durfee neighborhood into a four-acre urban farm. Since its first full growing season in 2011, they’ve expanded to grow organic produce, produce honey, maintain a fruit orchard and raise chickens and ducks.
One avenue they plan to explore is fish farming through aquaponics: a movement that’s seen success in places like Milwaukee and Toledo but hasn’t happened on a large scale in Detroit.
Aquaponics combines hydroponics – growing plants without soil – and fish farming, Link said. “The hydroponic crops or plants act as the filter for the pond or tank and are fed by the waste of the fish.”
Fish secrete ammonia, which bacteria in the water convert into nitrates, Link said. Those nitrates then feed the crops, and the crops filter the fish tank, creating one sustainable, cycling system for food production.
Link said money wasn’t the only limitation for projects like this one.
“There are a number of reasons this hasn’t taken off yet in Detroit,” he said. “For one, until this spring, zoning for food production in the city has been extremely limited. There have been plans for large-scale fish production using abandoned industrial space and rehabilitative labor, but as far as I know they’ve been held up.
“Not to mention it takes a greater level of planning and investment than regular community gardening and farming, which is a real barrier,” Link said.
According to the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law, up to 355 urban farms and gardens in Detroit had been illegal under Michigan’s Right to Farm Act and the city’s zoning regulations.
However, an urban agriculture ordinance recently passed by the City Council effectively legalized the farming of fish and produce.
The ordinance, originally drafted by the city Planning Commission, doesn’t permit animal agriculture such as raising chickens, rabbits or bees.
It does allow for sales on farm stands and at farmers markets and doesn’t limit the size of farming plots.
Link said other challenges for urban fish farmers include climate and the fact that commercial aquaponics is a relatively new industry, but expanded urban farming could provide new ways of addressing problems facing cities like Detroit.
“I see a lot of benefits available in this, such as multiplying and diversifying our local food economy,” Link said. “It can also provide new jobs and educational opportunities in the field of food production.”
And should the campaign succeed, Food Field farmers will be able to grow crops year-round, because an aquaponics system can moderate temperature in greenhouses and provide extra fertility for the plants it sustains.
That means fresh, local Food Field produce, which is sold at Detroit farmers markets, would be available during the cold Michigan winters.
Meanwhile, urban farming continues to provide resources to struggling Detroit neighborhoods.
In 2008, Wayne State University launched SEED – Sustainable Food Systems Education & Engagement in Detroit – to grow and distribute fresh food to area residents. The Ford Motor Company Fund sponsors the program with a $100,000 annual grant.
It’s a partnership among students in food and urban development education programs, community-based hunger relief agencies and area businesses. One program element, Detroit FRESH, helps small stores to stock fruits and vegetables in low-income neighborhoods.
SEED director and Wayne State urban planning professor Kami Pothukuchi said one challenge is changing profit-driven attitudes in an urban environment.
“With Detroit FRESH, we went in to recruit about 260 stores, and 18 participated,” Pothukuchi said. “This is not something stores are waiting for. It’s not part of the business model. There’s just not enough money in it.
“We try to tell people – you’ve been in this community, you’re making a lot of money, why not provide a service?” she said.
Online resources for CNS editors
FISHSTARTER! Aquaponics at Food Field
By CELESTE BOTT