An urban fish farm and a great tilapia recipe

Editor’s note: Picking up on something I wrote a few weeks ago, about sustainable and responsible fish farming, I thought I’d tell you about one of two fish farms that recently opened in depressed areas of Detroit. (In addition, a University of Michigan graduate student opened a shrimp farm in a vacant Detroit house.) I recently visited the CDC Farm and Fishery and was very impressed. The fishery uses only organic food for the fish, and no antibiotics, making them much better for human consumption than the tilapia farmed in China and South America, which account for most of the tilapia eaten in the U.S. It’s run by a faith-based nonprofit. Maybe the idea can be exported to other urban areas! This article, by Matthew Lewis (no relation), is used by permission of Model D, a Detroit online newspaper that published it on May 20, 2014. 

Grown in Detroit, but not in the ground:
The next evolution of urban agriculture

Just south of Detroit’s Boston Edison neighborhood—ironically positioned across from a “you buy, we fry” fish joint—is the first functioning commercial aquaponics operation within the city of Detroit, Central Detroit Christian‘s (CDC) Farm and Fishery.

Not only is CDC Farm and Fishery the city’s first functioning aquaponics operation, it’s also the first agriculture business to receive a special land use permit authorized under the city’s recently adopted Urban Agriculture Ordinance. The operation is also licensed by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The Farm and Fishery operates in a colorfully painted building that recently housed a party store. CDC purchased the building two years ago and began converting it into the two-level aquaponics operation where plants and fish are being cultivated simultaneously and symbiotically today.

From beer coolers to hydroponic beds

On the ground floor, rows of beer coolers and shelves were removed to make way for rows of hydroponic beds for growing herbs and vegetables. Today, grow lights slide on tracks above the beds, 90 percent of which are filled with basil.

Recently, CDC added a multi-tiered stand for growing microgreens to a corner of the ground floor. “Basil and microgreens are tremendously lucrative,” says Anthony Hatinger, CDC’s production and garden manager.

In the building’s basement are several large tanks holding approximately 4,500 tilapia fish in various stages of growth, all of which are the offspring of one male and two females (CDC has five female breeding fish, but only two have successfully reproduced). Two smaller tanks, one containing a bed of worms and another bacteria that work together as a “biofilter,” convert fish waste produced inside the growing tanks into nitrate-enriched water that is cycled upstairs to the plant beds, fertilizing the herbs.

“We don’t use fertilizers besides the fish,” says Hatinger. “We don’t use pesticides or other chemicals. We use organic practices and organic seeds, though we’re not certified organic because it costs too much.” CDC even uses organic, non-GMO fish food. Hatinger, a Lansing-area native, fell in love with Detroit when he first attended the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (the free festival superseded by Movement) when he was in high school.

He moved to Detroit just over a year ago after graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in religious studies and a minor in horticulture. He also obtained a specialization in sustainable agriculture and food systems. So when the opportunity to work for CDC on the city’s first functioning aquaponics operation presented itself, it was a perfect fit.

Faith-based and food-based

A faith-based nonprofit community Development corporation, Central Detroit Christian manages eight socially-driven, for-profit businesses (LC3s). Several of these businesses are food-based, including CDC Farm and Fishery; Cafe Sonshine, a healthy soul food restaurant; and Peaches and Greens, a neighborhood produce market.

“The goal is to create jobs and be a force of change in the neighborhood by creating a community of choice,” says Hatinger. “We’re offering a very niche agricultural skillset to people who don’t necessarily have a good outlook for employment.”

At full production, CDC Farm and Fishery will employ around a dozen neighborhood residents and will be open 18 hours per day for three six-hour shifts. Hatinger estimates workers will harvest an average of 100 fish per week, each fish yielding between 0.5 and 0.75 pounds of filet meat that will sell at between $7 and $8 per pound.

Currently, CDC Farm and Fishery’s micro greens and herbs can be purchased at the Grown in Detroit stand on Saturdays at Eastern Market. CDC has also supplied pop-up chefs at Corktown’s St. Cece’s and Hamtramck’s (revolver) restaurant. CDC recently brought on Megan Husch as the Farm and Fishery’s general manager. She is tasked with marketing and selling their products to local purchasers, which could include restaurants, hotels, and food distributors.