Bigger Fish to Fry

An experimental aquaculture farm in Detroit just might help solve global food issues

Some solutions to the growing concern about global food supplies may be found in an unlikely place: the basement of a former liquor store a few blocks north of the Fisher Building in Detroit.

In a neighborhood once known as Piety Hill, the CDC Farm and Fishery — an outgrowth of the Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation — set up an indoor, self-sustaining ecosystem to produce fresh fish and vegetables.

It’s the first functioning commercial “aquaponics” operation in the city, licensed by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Aquaponics is basically a mix of aquaculture and hydroponic techniques.

The initial goal is small: sell to individuals and local restaurants in an area that doesn’t have a lot of fresh food options. But the implications are global.

According to Megan Husch, CDC’s food systems marketing and outreach coordinator, the group remodeled a somewhat dilapidated store at the corner of Second Avenue and Philadelphia Street. “The roof was in bad shape,” she says. As were the floors. Basically, it needed an overhaul. The big attraction was the basement.

They set up a closed-loop system modeled after a University of Virgin Islands concept nabbed off the Internet. The only thing added is specialized fish food shipped from out of state.

The university is world-renowned for their work with tilapia, a warm freshwater fish hearty enough to “survive our mistakes,” Husch says.

We don booties over shoes before entering the “lab.” The tour starts on the first floor. It feels like a greenhouse, warm and humid. “It’s much better downstairs,” Husch says, and explains the system.

Grow lights slide on tracks above rows of hydroponic beds. The main crop is basil, grown in sponge-like peat plugs, with roots dangling into nutrient-rich water.

As promised, the basement is cooler. Husch explains that raising tilapia has a lot of advantages, especially because they don’t need to spawn to breed.

The CDC started with “super male” breeder sets, which produce offspring that are 97-98 percent males. These are larger and sell better. The first breeder male would lure females into a submerged flowerpot (nicknamed the “de-flowering” pot).

The resulting offspring got busy breeding and growing. Their waste is pumped to a worm bed where it’s broken down into nutrient-rich water that’s pumped upstairs to the plant beds. Once the plants absorb the nutrients, the water is returned to the fish tanks, restarting the cycle.

This approach — and the larger concept of “aquaculture” — has global reach.

The United States is a major importer of farm-raised seafood, especially shrimp, salmon, and tilapia. According to a series by National Geographic magazine, 2012 global output of aquaculture reached more than 70 million tons, exceeding beef production.

It’s estimated that population growth — coupled with seafood’s “heart-healthy” reputation — may up demand by 35 percent in the next 20 years.

Another advantage to raising fish: They don’t eat as much. National Geographic cited some telling statistics: It takes around a pound of feed to produce a pound of farmed fish. But it takes almost two pounds to produce a pound of chicken, three for a pound of pork, and seven for a pound of beef.

Back in the fish farm basement, Husch touts more benefits. They use no fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. And once the fish tanks are full, only a bit of water is added to maintain operations.

The CDC manages other food-based programs: Cafe Sonshine, a healthy soul food restaurant, and Peaches and Greens, a produce market.

The fish farm is still experimental. But if successful, it could be duplicated in communities around the world.

For now, the CDC sells whole tilapia at Peaches and Greens. Current production can’t support large-scale seafood restaurants. Plus, commercially available tilapia sells for less than CDC’s break-even point (although, Husch says, much imported tilapia is produced under suspect methods, including being fed manure and pumped up with hormones and antibiotics). Plus, she maintains, the CDC’s tilapia tastes sweeter.

The CDC also sells their basil to Supino Pizzeria (try it on their Margherita pie). And the tilapia has been served at St. CeCe’s for specials as well as at Dr. Sushi pop-up events.

Now that CDC has figured out the basics, they’re considering changing to a cold-water fish such as perch. Energy costs would plummet because they wouldn’t have to heat the water. They could also potentially grow minnows as the perch’s food source rather than expensive feed.

An added bonus: They could sell excess perch back to the state to restock Michigan’s waters.

Aside from exploring perch, the CDC is adding new tanks to make the tilapia easier to separate and catch. They’re also producing wheat grass and micro greens — grown in ground-up coconut husks. Although they’re not part of the closed-loop system, they turn a profit.

Here are a few more numbers: The United States imports nearly 90 percent of its seafood, half from aquaculture. Only 5 percent of the U.S. seafood supply is from domestic aquaculture, and the annual U.S. seafood trade deficit is more than $10.4 billion.

A few Michigan firms are capturing a small share of that market. Several years ago, Russ Allen — based on more than 20 years experience in Latin America — started a shrimp farm in Okemos.

The shrimp are being used at upscale Detroit-area restaurants, including Chartreuse Kitchen and Cocktails. Executive chef Doug Hewitt has been buying the shrimp for years.

“It’s on par with prices [compared to other distributors],” he says. “And for me, it’s good to know they’re taken care of … you can taste the difference. And I’m proud to keep the money in the state.”