CHICAGO (ANS) — Maria Labra has been urban gardening for years, raising vegetables in her backyard and along the steep railroad embankment that runs alongside her busy street, but this year she plans to harvest a new crop to feed her family — fish.
Downstairs, in a corner of Labra’s basement, water ripples gently over rocks and plants, chayote vines crawl toward a grow light on the ceiling, and 30 tilapia fish jump for the fish food Labra’s daughter drops into their 55-gallon tank.
Labra’s family is one of the first to participate in Proyecto Pescado, an urban aquaculture project to help provide protein-rich food for families in a low-income Mexican community on Chicago’s southwest side, teach residents about ecology and incubate future businesses.
“This project shows people how everything is related to everything else,” said Neris Lopez, co-founder of EcoVida, a neighborhood-based organization devoted to ecology and environmental education that’s spearheading the project.
Labra’s tilapia, a hearty fish that can thrive in tight environs, swim in a 55-gallon barrel that’s part of a mini-ecosystem, a “living machine.”
A small pump circulates water from the fish tank through rock-filled PVC tubing to cleanse it. The purified water then runs by miniature lily pads and potted plants — in addition to chayote, Labra is growing ginger and rice — before it trickles back into the fish tank. Except for the barrel, the entire system is set up on sawhorses beneath a small window and takes up about 4 x 5 feet of space.
Labra is not the only city dweller with her own fish farm. “It’s beginning to catch on as viable agricultural production system,” says Alison Meares, Chicago program manager for Heifer Project International, a nonprofit organization that works worldwide to improve nutrition and foster economic development opportunities through donations of animals to poor families.
“What we’ve largely done is had these huge catfish farms, particularly in the south of the United States. People are beginning to explore the opportunities for doing it indoors in the city.”
Heifer Project is funding the initial phase of Proyecto Pescado by purchasing fish and materials for EcoVida’s first six living machines. A fully stocked living machine built from new materials costs about $150; using recycled materials can cut that cost in half. Families involved in Proyecto Pescado don’t pay anything up front but must agree to provide technical assistance and $50 start-up money to another family after a year’s time.
Proyecto Pescado is Heifer Project’s second aquaculture project in Chicago. On the city’s South Side, young people in the Robert Taylor Homes public housing development care for two living machines that have a different design — a three-tank system that doesn’t allow for cultivation of edible plants but is based on the same principles of a recirculating system of fish, plants and a calcium-carbonate filter.
In Milwaukee, in another youth-based project sponsored by Heifer Project, the nonprofit group Farm City Link, operates 10 living machines in the city’s greenhouse. “We’re introducing the kids to the future and starting to get them to think about a sustainable lifestyle,” said Will Allen, founder and director of Farm City Link, adding that food security is a major emphasis of the program. “We’re really looking at this long term as a way for people to feed themselves.”
In Toronto, Annex Organics has a similar goal. “We’re trying to see how productive the city can actually be,” said Lauren Baker, manager and co-founder of Annex Organics, which runs demonstration gardens — including a rooftop garden –and two living machines in a Toronto warehouse. Annex Organics is credited with adapting the design of the living machine originally developed by Canadian Dr. John Todd as an ecologically friendly way to clean wastewater for small-scale fish production.
Baker thinks the idea of urban fish production will catch on. “We do public workshops on living machines, and tons of people come. Then they go home and they adapt the design for themselves, and sometimes they just build a really tiny living machine with just ornamental fish, and sometimes they do something a lot bigger.”
Lopez of EcoVida hopes that Proyecto Pescado may expand commercially at some point, perhaps through the formation of a cooperative. Farm-raised tilapia goes for about $8 per pound at local health food stores. But it takes about seven months for the fish to grow from fingerlings to about a pound and a half, when they are ready to be harvested.
“It’s not intended to be a big moneymaker at this level,” said Meares. “It’s intended to provide protein for the families more than anything else. Some of the families hope that they may be able to sell some of it to neighbors or have a relationship with a restaurant, but they’re a long way from being able to do that.”
Still, Baker points out, families can realize economic benefits from raising their own food. “You’re not generating revenue directly from the fish, but you wouldn’t have to buy fish or meat, so you’d be able to save money and divert it to something else.” The fish can be frozen, and eventually families will be able to stagger production so that they can harvest fish every month.
Baker and Lopez both point out that benefits of the living machines are more than monetary. “The whole system really connects people to the cycles of life,” says Baker. “You learn about those cycles, and your family basically becomes integrated with the living machine, feeding the fish and caring for the plants and learning about where your food comes from.”
In Labra’s case, caring for the fish has brought unity to her family by giving Labra and her teen-age daughter an activity they can share. It’s also helped Labra fight depression. “It’s like having a little river inside your house,” says Lopez, “a fountain where you can hear the rippling of the water all day and night — with the hope of life.”
© COPYRIGHT 1999 The American News Service