Aquaponic farming takes root in urban food desert

David Young gives aquaponic plants a spray of water at Partnership Community Development Corp.'s Urban Food Lab, in a once-forsaken storefront on 60th Street in West Philadelphia.
David Young gives aquaponic plants a spray of water at Partnership Community Development Corp.'s Urban Food Lab, in a once-forsaken storefront on 60th Street in West Philadelphia.
Posted: June 12, 2012

When Chester police raided a former drugstore in May 2011, what they found gave new meaning to the term high tech.

In the basement was a hydroponic marijuana farm of serious sophistication. Nearly 100 pot plants, from seedlings to lush, 4-foot bushes, flourished in large tubs of water. Faux sunshine from dozens of commercial-grade grow lights powered by industrial generators shone down on a crop worth at least $43,000.

The confiscated equipment typically would have sat in a warehouse until it could be auctioned or destroyed. But Michael Jay, a detective with the Delaware County District Attorney's Office, had a brighter idea.

Today, inside a once-forsaken West Philadelphia storefront, the grow lights are giving life to a promising experiment in urban aquatic farming — not only of vegetables and herbs (the legal variety), but also fish.

On the first floor, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, and basil sprout from 10-foot lengths of rain gutter and bright orange PVC pipe, also spoils of the Chester raid.

In the cellar, about 80 tilapia navigate the fresh waters of a 4,200-gallon tank made from thick black plastic, oblivious to their pan-fried fate.

This is the Urban Food Lab of the Partnership Community Development Corp., a nonprofit that for 17 years has been striving to revitalize West Philadelphia. Many community groups around the city have similar missions. But no other has dived into aquaponic agribusiness.

Less than two years after the venture began with a star-crossed school of goldfish, the reality is still only a glimmer of executive director Steven Williams' ultimate vision: an engine driving rebirth, creating jobs while producing fresh vegetables and fish for the urban "food desert" that is the Cobbs Creek neighborhood.

"This is going to be one of those economic generators," said Williams, whose goal is to employ 50 workers and harvest 7,000 pounds of produce annually.

He expects to be welcoming the first customers by early August. But already, people are stopping by every day to see the operation, he said. "They can't wait to buy from us."

Nationally, the concept of aquaponics — cultivating plants and fish in a recirculating ecosystem — is riding a swelling wave. Community-run farms are flourishing in Chicago and New York, and putting down roots in Baltimore.

It "is a perfect way to grow in an urban environment," said Sylvia Bernstein, author of Aquaponic Gardening: A Step by Step Guide to Growing Fish and Vegetables Together. Because the system uses no soil, it can be plunked down anywhere, even on rooftops. And it requires only 10 percent of the water needed in traditional gardening.

Large commercial enterprises have yet to embrace the technique, she said, but "it is, without a doubt, a grassroots movement," mushrooming under the grow-local banner.

On a recent day at the food lab, David Young, one of the three volunteer farmhands, tended to the crops. The squish-squish-squish of his water mister was drowned out occasionally by trucks rumbling by on 60th Street. It has yet to be determined which plants grow best in a few inches of water among the marble-sized lava balls and shale stones lining the gutters, though Williams and his crew are leaning toward primarily lettuces, peppers, collard greens, and kale.

Out on the sidewalk, curious neighbors peered into the basement stairwell as Michael Brown, also a volunteer, tested the fish tank water, which is slowly pumped up into the troughs on the first floor. The waste-infused water gives the plants the nutrients they need to grow. They, in turn, filter and clean the water. Then it goes back down into the tank, and so on.

"Does he have any [fish] now?" Marie Cenou wanted to know.

Originally from Panama, Cenou and daughter Nilsa Urena were en route to 44th and Market Streets to shop for food, a trip that takes a couple of hours and includes a subway ride. They crave fresh fish, they said, but it is only available frozen at the grocery.

Once the food lab is open for business, said Cenou, "it would stop us from traveling so far."

It wasn't long ago that Williams was struggling to keep his nascent effort, funded with grants and donations, afloat.

He started with 100 feeder goldfish. Only two — the wryly named Arma and Geddon — survived. "We had to learn the biology of keeping fish alive," he said.

It took seven maddening failures before tilapia, the perfect aquaponic inhabitants, were introduced. An easy-to-grow, mild-tasting species native to Africa, they can go from fingerling to pound-and-a-half, plate-size meal in about a year.

The plants — at first, microgreens set in Folger's coffee cans — were a trial, too. Fish waste water is loaded with nitrogen. Too much of it and the roots burn; too little and the plant starves. But with counsel from Cheyney University professor Stephen G. Hughes, director of aquaculture research at the Delaware County school, a viable ecosystem finally was established.

The project, though, was bedeviled from above: inexpensive, hobby-grade grow lights that blew out every few weeks.

Michael Jay, the Delco detective, heard all about it while getting a haircut.

He and Williams grew up together in the same Upper Darby neighborhood, where "you just knew people." He continued to patronize the barbershop at 59th and Rodman that Williams' father had run for 40 years and that now belonged to his brother, Neil Jr. One day, not long after the raid on the Chester marijuana farm, they got to talking.

Each of the 69 confiscated grow lights was worth an estimated $250. To the Urban Food Lab, they would be priceless.

"It kind of mushroomed from there," said Jay, who followed up with a request for the lights.

Partnership CDC got 38 of them. Seventeen went to Cheyney, whose aquaponic enterprise is called Herban Farms. In operation since 2006, it employs eight workers, who tend to about 3,500 tilapia in a 35,000-gallon tank and harvest 600 dozen Sweet Genovese basil plants weekly for sale at major supermarkets in the region.

The donation of grow lights to both ventures was a "terrific reuse" of "criminal property," declared G. Michael Green, Delaware County's former district attorney and now a Common Pleas Court judge.

Williams sees an increasingly robust market for aquaponic fish and vegetables — so healthy that he plans to expand into the former Imperial Ballroom at 217 S. 60th. Five years ago, Partnership CDC bought the 108,000-square-foot space and six adjoining buildings from the city as part of a redevelopment project.

"I'm going to fill it" with fish, vegetables, and workers, Williams said of the ballroom.

"It is all doable."

Contact Mari A. Schaefer at 610-892-9149, mschaefer@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @marischaefer.

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