February 10, 2015

Reflections on Urban Farming and Aquaponics

Olivia Chalkley

Olivia Chalkley

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future


Olivia on a farm with baby goat.

Urban farming was my one and only obsession in high school: the first idea I could latch onto, and eventually commit to as a passion. The problem was, for a while at least, that I didn’t know much about it. It started with a tenth grade field trip to an urban homestead-style garden in Hampden, where beautiful people in cool clothes wandered amongst the beautiful plants they’d grown for themselves. Soon I was following a bunch of blogs that provided me with pages of similar imagery. But it was just imagery. I figured I could get some dirt and floral shorts and I would be well on my way. I didn’t actually set foot on a farm again until the end of my senior year of high school. When I reached my senior year, I had to complete a six-week internship, and I jumped on the opportunity to work on four farms (Boone Street Farm, Real Food Farm, Hidden Harvest Farm, and Whitelock Community Farm) in Baltimore’s Farm Alliance.

Those six weeks dramatically altered my romanticized perceptions. Farming, no matter how small-scale, is really hard work. It seems obvious now, but I think a lot of people my age still have a warped view of everything that goes into keeping these operations running and flourishing. Farmers spend their days manually moving earth, and hunching over rows to weed and harvest. In addition to the physical labor, most of them keep extensive records of every plant seeded, transplanted, and harvested. The stacks of data made my brain hurt a bit. This was not the carefree paradise the Internet had promised me. I realized pretty quickly though, that the reality was a lot better, because it was actually feeding people.

A year and a half later, early December 2014, I found myself at CLF for another internship. This time, I worked with Laura Genello at the CLF Aquaponics Project, and with Dave Love on analyzing the Farm Alliance’s sales data.

Senior year had been a wake-up call and introduction, but this period of time allowed me to delve into the complexities, complications, and big questions of urban farming. Aquaponics offers a collection of benefits and drawbacks that are hugely different from all the other farms, large or small, I’ve seen around the city. (I immediately made some mental lists. Pro: there’s no need for soil testing or crop rotation. Con: Tilapia are picky about their water temperature, which requires a lot of energy to maintain.) I immediately noticed the difference in daily chores I was asked to do: no more hoeing potatoes in the hot sun. Instead, I cleaned algae from tanks and flushed excess fish excrement from clarifiers. There are different priorities, different fun jobs, and different gross jobs.

Most of the work I’ve done over these past six weeks has been with the elements of the business that originally made me the most uncomfortable: spreadsheets and science are not my strengths. But working with the Farm Alliance’s market data, and learning the process behind fish poop turning into plant nutrients, for example, have brought my attention to the roots of this work. Growing food is a huge part of it, of course, but what happens when your plants aren’t producing and you can’t figure out why? You won’t get too far without a little knowledge of science. And if you can’t keep track of what sells at the farmers market, how will you know what to plant next season? Good recordkeeping and analysis are essential here.

Specifically in the case of aquaponics, there are many upkeep tasks that have to be done on a daily basis, mostly having to do with testing and tracking water quality, just to keep the system functioning for the next 24 hours. Urban agriculture is a fairly new idea, and the niche of aquaponics has been explored even less, so a lot of what the project does is experimental. Certain crops inevitably fail, but then they aren’t planted again, and the system improves. The concepts of trial and error, patience, and recordkeeping were huge gaps in my previous understanding of sustainable farming, and it has been cool to see these practices being put to use.

As the internship comes to an end, I’m thinking about how I can take this knowledge and skillset into other areas of my life. Greensboro, North Carolina, where I live and attend school most of the year, is riddled with food deserts like Baltimore. Similar to Baltimore, urban gardens (and a worker-owned cooperative) are beginning to crop up as grassroots solutions to this issue. Right now, they have nothing that resembles the Farm Alliance, and so far I haven’t heard talk of anything like aquaponics. It’s become clear to me recently that sustaining community projects like this requires a lot of structure and support. Maybe some of this information could add to that structure. I’m also spending the next three months in Havana, Cuba, where urban agricultural practices have been adopted to overcome food scarcity caused by the embargo. I’m excited to have a framework to use when talking to those farmers. Aquaponics might interest them: tilapia would really thrive in Cuba’s climate without the energy needed for heating.

This particular Aquaponics project is an important, useful tool for teaching and modeling an alternative practice that could save space and money for farmers, and I’m excited to see where it goes. Urban agriculture, in all of its forms, has a lot of potential to both feed people, and empower people to feed themselves. I’m looking forward to continuing to study it and seeing how it transforms to meet our needs.

One Comment

  1. Posted by Gerald Garland


    By way of introduction, I am on the Board of SOZO Children which has an orphanage in Kampala, Uganda. We just recently purchased 30 acres of land and are researching aquaponics as a possibility for the future. Do you know of anyone that I could contact to discuss partnering possibilities for an aquaponics system for the orphanage? I am particularly interested in learning what Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland are doing in this space since I live in Maryland. Any suggestions or contacts you could provide would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.
    Jerry Garland

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