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Aquaculture in NC: Urban Aquaculture

Not everyone who wants to start an aquaculture farm has the privilege of picking up their family, leaving their job, and moving to a rural area. Note I didn’t say small town – many of the same rules apply to small towns as large cities. I mean at least a few miles from Main St. Not to mention, there’s lots of vacant lots right now in the sluggish real estate market that could be put to good use. That’s exactly what Rob Ellis decided when he opened Astor Farms in Charlotte, his hometown. He grows tilapia in an abandoned DHL warehouse near the Charlotte airport. And he shared his story at the NC Aquaculture Development Conference last week in New Bern, NC.

Empowered by the same energy behind many urban agriculture efforts – the push for local food, for a connection between city dwellers and their dinner, and the urge to make use of abandoned city land – Ellis began down the very much unpaved path for urban aquaculture. But unlike the pioneers of community farming and backyard chickens, aquaculture has no precedents and is unclearly defined in the legal world. In 1959, the NC General Assembly declared aquaculture a form of agriculture, which is exempt from zoning regulations. This is reflected even in the language of what many aquaculturists call themselves – farmers – and their operations – fish farms. So at the state level, there should be nothing standing in the way of a few tilapia ponds in Charlotte. Wrong.

Ellis fought city planners who attempted to fit his plans into the closest urban analog they could find – swimming pools and equine barns. Large quantities of water in Charlotte must be swimming pools, right? And should you call the roof over their head a ‘fish barn’, then you have to tangle with horse regulations in the city. The city officials didn’t have the same hands-off attitude of the state.

City water is also chlorinated for the health of human residents of Charlotte. But tilapia would require dechlorination, mostly done chemically. So Ellis decided to drill a well on city property. This is something that is becoming more and more common for a variety of social reasons, so no one really raised an eyebrow at this. But when attempting to get a contract for effluent wastewater, only a city the size of Charlotte could comfortably accomodate the extra flow. If someone in a smaller town wants to use that process, they may be faced with upgrading the city municipal water facilities or installing private water treatment.

Would Ellis do it again? Yes, under the right circumstances. Plus, thanks to him, Charlotte is familiar with aquaculture. It’ll be easier the next time around.

Ellis’ operation is commercial in scale and provides tilapia to restaurants, farmer’s markets, and the Charlotte locovores. Another popular option for the home grower is aquaponics. Basically, connect your fish poop to your hydroponics, and you’ve got the idea. We’re back to the idea of a designed ecosystem, where the wastes of one part of the system feed the needs of the other. Aquaponics are popular systems for the hobby productionist growing food for their family. From what I could tell from Chris Mullins’ presentation at the conference, there’s myriad ways to set up your aquaponics system depending on how big you want it to be and how much capital you have to invest. From the smallest – literally connecting the family fish tank to a bed of vermiculite with lettuces planted – to the larges – a large greenhouse full of tomatoes with a large standard aquaculture tank-full of tilapia feeding the production. He suggested www.growingpower.org as a good place for more good resources for urban aquaponics ideas. The sky’s the limit.