The old Chinese proverb says “give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will eat for the rest of his life.”
But if Lao Tzu were alive today, he might say: “Teach a man about aquaponics and he will eat well for the rest of his life and feed his neighbors to boot.”
Dozens of area students and adults learned about aquaponics earlier this month when Will Allen, founder and CEO of the Milwaukee-based nonprofit Growing Power, brought a team to Raleigh to educate and inspire us to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound.
Allen is known around the world as an expert in urban agriculture. He was one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, received the MacArthur Genius Award and was standing beside Michelle Obama at the White House as the first lady launched her “Just Move!” initiative.
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Allen and his team were in North Carolina because Longview School in Southeast Raleigh and the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle have partnered to become a Growing Power Regional Outreach Training Center. Teaching people Growing Power’s easy-to-replicate growing methods enables them to feed themselves and generate income by selling what they grow to neighbors and local restaurants.
The goal is to start a snowball effect that ends with the community becoming a happier, healthier place.
At this first Raleigh workshop, which was funded by a Department of Agriculture grant, participants visited stations to learn skills such as how to build a hoop house (a low-cost greenhouse), how to grow mushrooms and microgreens, and how to set up an aquaponics system that can produce a lot of fish and vegetables on a very small footprint.
All participants had the opportunity to interact with Allen at the vermicomposting station. Using worms to refine and fertilize compost is a topic he is particularly passionate about.
The event, dubbed Plant the Pavement, included both adult and student workshops. A significant message of both was that it’s important to cultivate customers while you cultivate produce.
Brent Miller brought a group from his Enloe High School Garden Club to the student workshop. His students really responded to the business side of message. “Inside or outside of the garden, students seem to respond to any activity that teaches a skill that can lead to more money in their pockets,” Miller said.
Aquaponics combines aquaculture and hydroponics and has the potential to be a big money-maker because it eliminates drawbacks that the two other methods have when used alone.
Aquaculture, or farm-raising fish, produces a lot of waste that has to be disposed of. Hydroponics, which is a method of growing plants without soil, typically requires a lot of chemical fertilizer.
With aquaponics, fish water is pumped through the planting beds. The fish waste fertilizes the plants, and the plants filter the water to keep the fish healthy. Pretty slick, as my Dad would say.
In just a few hours, Dave Grow (seriously, that’s his real name) of Growing Power put together a compact aquaponics system inside the Longview School greenhouse.
The system, which takes up about 16 square feet of floor space, can grow as many as 100 fish. And because the water is so rich with nutrients from the fish waste, a lot of plants can thrive in the relatively small planting bed.
Patrick Faulkner, the horticulture teacher at Longview School, plans to raise tilapia, but you can also raise trout, grouper, shrimp, prawns – almost any freshwater fish.
You can purchase systems that are ready to go, but they are pricier than piecing together your own system. The unit that Grow put together at Longview used about $150 worth of materials, including a recycled international bulk container, some PVC pipe, gravel and a pump.
The day’s activities sparked an interest in the Enloe students. They have “already started applying some of the skills they learned,” Miller said.
Each school left the workshop with a mushroom starter tray, and Miller’s students seemed excited to continue mushroom cultivation.
I’m not sure how many of the students will run home to build an aquaponics system, but they are definitely thinking about the possibilities. The snowball is rolling.