San Diego IRC Conference: Building Stronger Communities with Farming

Having been to a few conference this year and last year, I have discovered a few things about where I will go or send staff in 2012! A good conference should be both informative (practical application) and inspiring (realisitc and motivational) and this conference did the job right!  Zach and I attended for the first time as new members and were treated like family immediately by Hugh Joseph and Larry Laverentz, founders and mentors to the network.

The RAPP conference is a convergence of all of the Refugee Agricultural Projects across the nation and everyone meets up and shares techniques and notes and networks. Seattle Tilth is currently not funded by RAPP or ORR, however we were still asked to share info, meet with IRC staff from Seattle, as well as present information about our market ideas, training methods, and challenges!

The conference was hosted by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) which works in 40 countries and 22 cities in the U.S. to provide support and aid to refugees.  The IRC in San Diego supports the New Roots for Refugees Farm which is a project like ours that helps refugees learn to grow and sell vegetables in the U.S.

We visited the City Heights farmers market and saw the project participants selling their veggies like pros.  The farmer’s market was very different from the Seattle and King County farmer’s markets because it reflected the diverse immigrant and refugee population of the City Heights neighborhood in San Diego.

Another highlight was the IRC and New Roots for Refugees plant nursery and a tilapia aquaponics/aquaculture system all located downtown in City Heights.  The tilapia aquaponics system was made famous by McArthur genius grant recipient Will Allen and the Growing Power urban farm in Milwaukee.  Here’s how the system works:  Tilapia fish are raised in large tanks inside a greenhouse.  The nitrogen rich wastewater that the fish create is pumped through a filtration system of gravel and sometimes watercress which both work to break down the ammonia in the fish waste into nitrogen fertilizer.

The filtered nitrogen rich water is piped through the roots of plants also growing in the greenhouse.  The plants further filter the water removing nitrogen so that the water is then safe to flow back into the fish tanks where it first came from.  In the end you have tilapia that can be raised in an urban environment and plants and vegetables that are fertilized as a byproduct of the tilapia production.   It’s a loop that requires very little extra input–the water is recycled and the fish waste used to nourish plants instead of “wasted” or disposed of.    In conventional fish farming the high concentration of the byproduct waste can be a serious pollutant and in freshwater systems the amount of water needed is tremendous.  Hence the beauty of the aquaponics/aquaculture system.

Now in Seattle and King County, I would lean towards Lake Trout or local white fish verses Talapia for several reasons, we will be connecting with Department of Ecology and WSU to figure out a regional safe fish that does not require tropical conditions to be raised. Vertical space used by hanging plants. Underneath are veggies growing aquaponically and fed by fish waste water.

Zach and I also got to tour other farmers markets in San Diego, a water processing plant, a few local garden/farm sites, and of course eating So. Cal Fish Tacos! Maybe for the last time in a while due to radioactive waste arriving from Japan’s earthquake last March. More a reason to start indoor organic fish growing…..

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