Stateside: Fish farming in Detroit

Dec 20, 2012

The Detroit Planning Commission recently approved a new Urban Agriculture Ordinance. The action takes the city a step closer to officially recognizing the dozens of urban farms and gardens scattered across the city.

The ordinance also defines the kinds of projects that would be allowed, such as farm stands, orchards or greenhouses. Stateside’s Mercedes Mejia reports some residents are experimenting with aquaponic systems. It’s a method of growing crops and fish at the same time.

Noah Link: Over here is our chicken coop. We have about 42 chickens and 4 ducks so far. You can hear the ducks – they’ve awfully loud and hungry probably.

Noah Link is the co-owner of Food Field. He lives and works in the Boston-Edison neighborhood in Detroit. I met up with him on his farm called Food Field. It’s on the site of a former elementary school - imagine a small farm tucked away in the city.

 "So if you go a few blocks one way there are huge historical mansions, and you go a few blocks the other way and it’s all run down old shops, and total poverty, and we’re right in between," he says.

Link and his business partner worked on several farms across the country. They knew it wouldn’t be easy to own a farm, but they’re doing the hard work. On the land are different kinds of crops, chickens, a few beehives, and a young orchard of fruit and nuts trees. There’s also a hoop house to grow vegetables year-round.

"And we’ve just built an aquaponic system to be able to raise fish in there, which I’ll show you."

An aquaponic system is a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture - growing plants in water and fish farming.

"And it takes the best of both of those in a self-sustaining system so then rather than having to worry about toxic fish waste to get rid of or keeping it sterile hydroponic environment for your plants, the plants grow out of the waste water from the fish that just get circulated with the pump and they clean out the water to keep it safe for all the fish in the tank," Link says.

A lot of people who work with aquaponic systems grow Tilapia. It’s a fast growing fish. But they’re tropical, and so require warm water. Link wants to raise blue gill and catfish. They can tolerate colder water.

"Rather than spend potentially tens of thousands of dollars on the boiler to keep the water here were going to grow some more local fish," he says.

But, Link and others who have joined the urban agriculture movement in Detroit are doing it under the radar.

"It’s not really illegal. The only thing that’s illegal is keeping farm animals and we’re not changing that quite yet," says Kathryn Lynch Underwood. She's a city planner with the city of Detroit.

She helped create the new Urban Agriculture Ordinance.

"Really, Detroit will I think be able to blossom and position itself as a global leader in how city’s will feed themselves as well as positioning ourselves to have impact on urban food systems," she says.

Aquaponics is one of those systems. It’s happening on large scales around the world – and on a smaller scale right here in Michigan.

Jim Gill is with Aqua Growers, a commercial aquaponics farm in Livonia, just 20 miles west of Detroit. Gill grows Tilapia and greens. He sells them to local markets. He gave me a tour of the operation in a simple warehouse in Livonia.

Jim Gill: When I whistle at them they know it’s time to eat….and you can see how big these are these are marketable already, some of these are well over two pounds….

Gill says an aquaponic system is a good alternative to traditional farming because you can do it almost anywhere.

"As long as you’ve got just a small back yard you can do this, or a small basement."

But it’s not catching on as fast as he’d like it to.

"You know people are not embracing it quite as quickly, because that’s just not the way it’s always been done…well we don’t want to be like everybody," Gill says.

Gill says he’s in the research and development stage, and he's teaching other people how to use the system.

So, remember Link, the young urban farmer in Detroit? He also wants to see what others are using aquaponics. And there one more thing. He wants to fill a void in Detroit. The city often lacks access to fresh produce. He wants to change that with locally grown fish and vegetables.

"Really what I'm interested in is showing different kinds of farming models that other people can apply either in their gardens or on bigger scales, and just producing as much food as we can sustainably here in the city," Link says.

The ordinance will go to the Detroit City Council and Mayor Dave Bing for consideration early next year.

If it’s approved it could open the door for more fish farming in Detroit.

Go here to find out more about Food Field.