Detroit's Newest Urban Farming Trend is Pretty Fishy

June 03, 2013, 12:12 AM

A new type of urban farming in Detroit is going swimmingly.

Two fish farms are expected to open this summer, a practice that is newly legal, thanks to the passage of the city’s Urban Agriculture Ordinance on April 15. The city is now working to establish a process for fish farms to get a permit.    

Located near Boston Edison, the two fish farms, Food Field and Central Detroit Christian Farm and Fishery, are nearly finished building facilities that will hold thousands of fish -- talapia, catfish and blue gill --  to be sold to local businesses and residents.


Central Detroit Christian Farm and Fishery (CDC) is situated in an unassuming 6,000-square foot building at 8500 Second Avenue. 

The Christian nonprofit, which works on education, employment and economic development in central Detroit, is best-known for projects like Peaches And Greens, which sells locally grown fruits and vegetables in Boston Edison while employing neighborhood residents.

When the former Corey’s Market property was donated to Central Detroit Christian, the group wanted to operate another business that would benefit the community, and settled on a type of fish farming called aquaponics.

Aquaponics refers to any arrangement where plants and fish are part of the same water system. In these cases, the fish and plants are in separate containers and water cycles between them. Fish waste makes good plant food, and plants help keep the water clean for the fish, so the plants and fish help each other grow. Aquaponics systems are known for being self-sustaining. The only thing regularly required to keep an aquaponics system running is fish food.

The system sounds a bit like a mad scientist's lab, but really just mimics a simplified pond in boxes.

Tilapia Tanks

The plants of CDC fish farm are in 1,350 square feet of plastic-lined wooden tanks set up across the main floor of the building.  It's designed so that the beds are not filled with soil but rather herbs and greens that float on water, held up by floating sheets of foam board called expanded polystyrene, or EPS. The plant roots float directly in the water.

Unlined wooden beds on the main floor where plants will grow.

The fish live in the lower level of the bulding, in similar water-filled tanks that group fish according to size. The fish farm holds more than 2,300 tilapia, and expects to sell 65-100 mature fish per week.

The basement

The water flows between the fish and plants, cycling constantly. 

At one step in the cycle, water exits the basement fish tanks full of fish waste and  flows through two smaller beds with organisms that help break it down into more efficient nutrients for the plants.

From there, water shoots upstairs to the plants, courtesy of a pump.  The plants filter out the waste, while at the same time, fortifying themselves with nutrients. 

Pipes then carry the freshly cleaned water back downstairs to the basement fish tanks, where the fish create more waste and the cycle starts again.

Left: a plant bed. Right: a fish bed.


The Other Fish Farm

Food Field, an urban farm on the former site of Peck Elementary, is taking a different approach.

Their aquaponics system is a little simpler and a lot smaller, but works in essentially the same way.

One thousand catfish and bluegill of all ages will co-mingle in a 8 foot-by-3.5-foot tank below two plant beds of the same size, where greens and other vegetables will be planted in a lightweight landscaping rock called haydite.

Food Field's aquaponics system is in a greenhouse with other crops.

The tanks sit in a greenhouse, surrounded by crops and waddling chickens, ducks, and a farm dog.

Left: plant bed. Right: fish bed.


Unknown Timetable

Though the systems are nearly complete, neither farm is sure when they’ll get individual approval from the city. Exactly how to become a fully permitted, legal aquaponics business is still fishy.

“The city is in the process of coming up with a process,” for approving fish farms, says Kathryn Underwood of the City Planning Commission. “We don't even have all of the forms quite in place yet for all of things that need to happen. We're riding a bike and building it at the same time.”

Underwood says Detroit's Urban Agriculture Ordinance borrowed pieces from other cities' legislation -- fish farms have surfaced in places like Kansas City and Milwaukee -- but that Detroit's is unique in its own right.

"We're allowing things in a variety of districts instead of coming up with a specific agriculture zone," says Underwood.

Central Detroit Christian (CDC) is Detroit’s fish farming guinea pig. Lisa Johanon, Executive Director and founder of CDC, filed CDC’s permit request the day after the Urban Agriculture Ordinance passed, hoping to be Detroit’s first legal fish farm.

Food Field, on the other hand, plans to wait until the city has streamlined the licensing process before applying. 

“We’re waiting to see the city work out everything,” says co-founder Noah Link. “When we started the city was still talking about some sort of urban agriculture. I talked to Kathryn Underwood and just went ahead under the assumption that as long as you're good with your neighbors you're good with the city.”

The purpose of the urban agriculture ordinance was, after all, to “legalize what was already taking place,” according to Underwood. “The amount of vacant land and the amount of activity that’s already going on is an opportunity.”

“There’s been no fight, at least from a legal perspective,” says Lisa Johanon. “Unofficial comments from several people are that this is going to pass, we just have to do the steps. The biggest roadblock is just that they haven't done it yet.”

In the meantime, all parties seem to be forging ahead, prepping to have fish swimming in a matter of weeks, and working under what CDC calls the Kevin Cosner Model. “If you build it, they will come.”


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