Joe Icet has a message for humanity: the world is in sad shape, and we’re here to lift it up through sustainable agriculture. His friends have even dubbed him a “land evangelist” because of his passion in talking to students and community members about the power of positive land stewardship.
“This is the ‘Disneyland of Sustainability’, haven’t you heard?” he asks as he guides visitors around a slightly hidden farming campus in Houston’s Fifth Ward residential neighborhood.
This retired union pipe fitter has made sustainable and organic farming his life’s mission. He founded The Last Organic Outpost, a nonprofit farm and social entrepreneurship incubator, in 2004. Since then, he has built up a thriving community education program and urban farm on less than two acres of land.
The Grow Local OC: Future of Urban Food Systems Conference presented by Seedstock in partnership with the OC Food Access Coalition, and scheduled for Nov. 10 – 11, 2016, at California State University, Fullerton, will explore the community and economic development potential of fostering local food systems in cities.
The Future Farm Field Trip on Day 2 (Nov. 11) of the conference offers an excursion into the diversity of urban and state-of-the-art hydroponic and aquaponic agriculture operations in Orange County. Tour participants will be treated to lectures and sessions from pioneering farmers who are embracing innovative business models and growing systems to both increase food security and take advantage of the escalating demand for local food.
Aquaponics farms often amaze visitors with the symbiotic connection between aquaculture and hydroponics that results in picture-perfect produce. Yet many aquaponics operations focus solely on training and education. Gyo Greens in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, has a focus on both the business and educational realm, to further spread the message about the importance of eating locally and naturally.
Owner Helga Tan Fellows, who spent much of her career in engineering and manufacturing, began Gyo Greens after traveling frequently for her job and seeing aquaponics operations elsewhere. An avid gardener, she thought aquaponics could be a fun hobby—yet her husband said it would probably be a bigger undertaking than just a hobby.
The global indoor agriculture market is expected to grow to more than $27 billion by 2020, fueled by consumer demand for fresh, local produce, a growing population, an ability to produce food in otherwise unfarmable locations, and heavy investment. But that growth is all speculation unless there are actually growers to grow the food and fill those jobs of the future. With this in mind, several universities and experienced growers have begun offering an array of programs and short courses designed to get the growing class of controlled environment farmers up and running.
Housed under the university’s Department of Agricultural & Biosystems Engineering and the School of Plant Sciences, CEAC is a hub for indoor ag education, research, and networking. The center includes a 5,200 square ft. training greenhouse, labs for plant physiology and engineering, a hydroponic growth chamber, and a “smart classroom” kitted out with technology that incorporates live data from the greenhouses into the classroom and shares lessons and visiting lecturers with distance learners. Through its own extension services and public curriculum, the CEAC also engages the public with opportunities for people not enrolled in the university to gain crop-specific hydroponic production experience, along with training on greenhouse management and design.
A stint with one of the most famous urban farming pioneers in the world along with a budding interest in hydroponics and aquaculture delved into while in the pursuit of a degree of in biology led Bowen DornBrook to take the plunge into aquaponic farming.
In 2013, he launched Central Greens, a 15,000-square-foot urban aquaponic farming operation located on a one-acre parcel of land in the heart of Milwaukee just down the road from Miller Park, home base of the Brewers baseball franchise.
Central Greens, an intertwined network of five separate greenhouses, currently houses eight 1,200-gallon tanks which are the lifeblood of the operation. Each tank holds between 500 and 600 fish, and the fish effluent in the water provides an organic nutrient source, or natural fertilizer, for the thousands of plants being grown in the system.
A middle school in Tulsa, Oklahoma is now home to an aquaponics system. The endeavor comes courtesy of nonprofit Global Gardens, which sees garden education as a way to not only help students in low-income communities become more knowledgeable about science, health and the environment, but also to become more confident and forward-thinking leaders.
Aquaponics is only one facet of Global Gardens’ focus. Its middle school site and three elementary school project locations not only teach broad-based gardening skills to kids, but also depend on wide community participation. As such, all four projects are education-centered. Each brings together members of the community and offers participating students much more than gardening education.
“The community’s really running this thing,” Hajjar says. “We have one volunteer at each after-school program, and we’re always on the hunt for volunteers. The focus is on the people—food really brings people together. A garden is a great equalizer—it’s magic when it comes to community.”
In the economically depressed and food insecure City of Petersburg, VA, a former YMCA building long neglected, but not forgotten, has become a beacon of growing hope in the community. Over the past two years the building has been refurbished and transformed into a high tech indoor farm and urban agriculture research center to provide workforce development training and increase food access through the production and distribution of high quality, fresh produce to area residents.
The center known as Harding Street Urban Agriculture Center is run by Duron Chavis, a community advocate and Indoor Farm Director at Virginia State University – College of Agriculture. Seedstock recently spoke to Chavis to learn more about the origin of Harding Street Urban Agriculture Center and its indoor farm, its goal, the sustainable methods employed in the indoor farm’s operation, and more.
With the embrace of aquaponics growing in tow with the urban agriculture sector, Santa Fe Community College in New Mexico wants to stay ahead of the curve and insure that its students are positioned to become the farmers of the future.
“The aquaponics industry is growing—10 years ago no one had heard of aquaponics and hydroponics—now people are excited,” says Adam Cohen, lead faculty member for the college’s greenhouse management program. “In the next five years, where do we go? We want to get information out to people and provide students with a way to go out and find jobs.”
Cohen says that aquaponics is a great agricultural technology to employ and teach in New Mexico as the state has a very arid climate and trenchant water resource challenges.