February 4, 2012

Lessons from the Landscape: Growing Power

Posted by Kristin

It dawned on me recently that I hadn't written a Lessons from the Landscape post in a while. That could be blamed on the fact that its winter and the landscape is mostly brown and occasionally snow-covered this time of year. But nonetheless,  its still there, alive and breathing.

I recently viewed the new documentary Fresh, an interesting, eye-opening and sometimes stomach-turning look into our industrial food system. Instead of stumbling through more of what the film is about, here's quick snapshop from the Fresh website:

"FRESH celebrates the farmers, thinkers and business people across America who are re-inventing our food system. Each has witnessed the rapid transformation of our agriculture into an industrial model, and confronted the consequences: food contamination, environmental pollution, depletion of natural resources, and morbid obesity. Forging healthier, sustainable alternatives, they offer a practical vision for a future of our food and our planet.
Among several main characters, FRESH features urban farmer and activist, Will Allen, the recipient of MacArthur’s 2008 Genius Award; sustainable farmer and entrepreneur, Joel Salatin, made famous by Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma; and supermarket owner, David Ball, challenging our Wal-Mart dominated economy."

While viewing the film, I discovered a pretty interesting guy: Will Allen. Will Allen is the founder of Growing Power, a nonprofit that works to educate communities and individuals about local food, provide training in organic and sustainable gardening methods, and offer technical assistance to those developing sustainable food systems.

Growing Power Founder Will Allen. via

When watching Fresh, you get a few snapshots of Growing Power's operations, from jam-packed greenhouses that grow food on every inch possible (including hanging containers) to teaching people of all ages to compost, to feasting on locally grown fruits, veggies, and meats. Overall, its a pretty stellar operation.

Making use of every square inch: a green house at the Growing Power urban farm in Milwaukee.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things the Growing Power Milwaukee urban farm has are two aquaponic hoop houses that produce Tilapia and salad greens. Now, some of you may be scratching that head of yours so we'll insert a little plant-speak here.

Aquaponics = a sustainable food production system that combines hydroponics (a growing system where plants grow in water instead of soil) with with aquatics (growing fish, prawns, crayfish, etc.).

Hoop house = a green house that is supported by metal hoops that run from one side of the ground, up and over, and back down to the other side.

You may still be scratching your head as to why this is worth any mention at all but when you look at the relationship between the little fishes and the salad greens that both grow in the water, its pretty neat.

Here's the deal: the fishes swim their hearts away in a tank of water. And just like humans do, after the fishes eat , they make "deposits" in the water. The water with the deposits is filtered out of the tank and fresh water is filtered in. The water full of nutirent-rich deposits is let into another series of growing beds full of water (remember the new word hydroponics) and as the salad greens grow, they take up nutrients from the deposits in the water.  Once the water is void of the deposits, its filtered back to the fishes as clean, fresh water.

For those who would appreciate a more technical definition, read this.

And for those who are visual learners, enjoy this little mock up:

 Now does it make sense? via

Some of you may be kinda grossed out by your salad greens growing in fish poop, but I'd take that over nasty chemicals any day (which conventionally-grown salad greens are full of). And just to show you how cool plants are (yup, my gardening-geek persona is out in full force), check this out:

Check out those roots! This is what plants look like when grown in water.
Usually all those roots are covered in soil. via

So what 'lesson' does this teach us from the landscape? That God knew what he was doing when he designed nature and that we do a heck of a job screwing it up. That's why I get excited when people like Will Allen try to combine the knowledge and technological advances we've made in the last hundred years (like aquaponics) with the efficiency and effectiveness of natural systems. The fish deposits feed nutrients to the plants and the plants take up those nutrients, creating clean water for the fish. A wonderful, beautiful, reciprocal cycle. Isn't nature cool? Ok, ok I'm stepping off my horticultural highchair now...

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