Food insecurity is a challenge faced everywhere, especially in the aftermath of a global pandemic. Millions around the globe lack access to basic food.
One solution to this? Fish poop.
Aquaponics, an environmentally sustainable farming system, utilizes nitrates generated from fish fecal matter to fertilize crops in a system that constantly renews itself. But aquaponics uses 95% less water than traditional farming methods, exactly what the Marine Education Initiative set out to create in South Florida.
In February 2021, the West Boca Raton-based nonprofit organization converted a warehouse on Oak Circle Drive into an aquaponics farm – the first of its kind in the region.
They farm different types of leafy greens, all watered from a tank holding over 100 blue nile tilapia. The fish and vegetables come together in a symbiotic relationship to produce a significant amount of food efficiently and environmentally friendly.
The warehouse is not only a means of producing food but also an educational facility.
“There are other hydroponic farms, but they don’t grow fish,” said Laura Cassetty, who oversees the operation. “So we’re really the first doing both at the same time. And we’re especially the first that is doing it as a nonprofit, as a tool for education for youth.”
Cassetty said that there are currently no other South Florida nonprofits using aquaponics to engage kids in thinking about sustainability. She has been working with the Marine Education Initiative since June 2021 and has used her background in science and environmental education to bring the aquaponics system to life.
“About 30 people a week are coming through here and learning about aquaponics for the first time,” Cassetty said. “A lot of people have heard of hydroponics, which is a good starting block…but then you add in fish.”
On top of education and community engagement, the Marine Education Initiative donates all of its products to Boca Helping Hands, another local nonprofit that provides hot meals to those in need.
Since the start of its operation in February 2021, the initiative has donated over a metric ton of produce. That is equivalent to over 2500 salads served for their hot meal program.
“Anytime we get a donation of food, it has a benefit,” said Bill Harper, the food director. “The 1500 pounds of fresh produce is a blessing to people who are actually able to receive it as part of the hot meal program.”
The farm also donated over 200 pounds of tilapia to Boca Helping Hands last year for Thanksgiving. The tilapia came from the first cycle of fish used to fuel the aquaponics system. Each cycle of fish lasts precisely a year; they are harvested after they reach at least two pounds.
The aquaponics system only uses 105 gallons of water a week to grow 30 pounds of lettuce a week. Traditional farming, however, would only be able to produce a little less than a pound of lettuce with the equivalent amount of water.
Currently, the aquaponics system itself is entirely zero-waste. The aquaponics system is consistently renewing itself, and leftover scraps of produce are composted and used as fertilizer in community gardens across Boca Raton. The only thing that consumes energy is the air conditioning units that regulate the temperature of the aquaponics system.
The Marine Education Initiative’s next step is to break ground on a new project – an even larger aquaponics system and greenhouse on a two-acre plot of land in Loxahatchee.
The project is set to produce 12 times the amount of the warehouse in Boca Raton.
On top of this, the facilities will be zero waste. Solar panels will provide energy to the farm.
The new facility will also provide educational benefits and produce to those in need.
The initiative is currently fundraising for the project and expects to break ground in February of 2023.
“The thing about aquaponics is that you don’t have to be perfect at it,” Cassetty said. “It doesn’t have to be a perfectly aquaponic system because life is messy, and science is messy, and nothing is a disaster, you know? It’s a net benefit for the community because it’s an environmental benefit, an educational benefit, and a social safety net. A community.”
The initiative is currently seeking active donations for its new farm project. You can donate on its website.