This is Inner-City Aquaponics, a new farm venture in the heart of Rossville that is unlike anything the city has seen.
Built by businessmen Ryan Cox and Trevor Morgan, who already own a successful fleet management company, Inner-City Aquaponics is looking to provide homegrown fish, meat and vegetables to the local community. Furthermore, they hope they can provide an example to communities around the world looking to create their own small sustainable farms.
What makes Inner-City Aquaponics unique is the way in which things are grown. The operation hinges on water — hence the word aquaponics. More importantly, the nutrients the plants need, which would normally be gathered from copious amounts of soil and fertilizer, are provided instead by a tank full of growing tilapia.
“The fish and vegetables grow together,” said Morgan, chief operating officer for Inner-City Aquaponics.
A pump feeds water — rich with fish waste — from the tilapia tanks down to a series of wide plant troughs, where fresh basil and sprouting spinach can grow rapidly in a liquid bath, with hardly any soil required other than to fill the small individual plant pots.
Because of the high quality of the fish waste, no fertilizers are required, and because the water troughs allow for individual plats of plants to be rotated periodically, crops can be grown and harvested on a consistent basis. And though the farm has not yet been inspected and certified as organic, all produce is being grown using organic methods. “We’re going to push for the organic certification,” said Morgan.
The farm is more than just a series of tanks, however. A pick-your-own vegetable garden has already been planted and is growing out nicely. Come harvest time, the community is invited to visit the farm and select their own squash, corn, tomatoes, peas, cantaloupe and watermelon, among other fare. Inner-City Aquaponics will be setting a standard price for a whole or half flat of produce picked at the farm; the rate is expected to be much less than those of local supermarkets.
Though Inner-City Aquaponics is starting with just tilapia, the process could be used with any type of fish, and the farm may eventually expand to include catfish or trout and possibly even crustaceans such as crawfish.
In addition to the growing tilapia and vegetables, the farm currently houses two varieties of chickens — Rhode Island Red and Silky — ducks, rabbits and approximately 150,000 honeybees.
The aquaponics process produces highly safe fish and vegetables. The two men hope to market their fish and produce to local restaurants as well as to the Rossville area community at large.
Because the tanks are a closed system and the population is controlled, there is no way for the fish or the vegetables to be contaminated. “There’s no way for them to have a food-borne illness or a food-borne disease,” said Cox.
To maintain the health of the tanks and to keep crops always in different stages of growth, the farm plans to harvest out and rotate 20 percent of each tank per week. With different stages of plant growth throughout the tank, Cox explained, the nutrients provided by the fish will be better dispersed and the tanks will be healthier overall.
“What we try to do is create a balance of nature,” he said.
A meeting of the minds
The entire operation is now up and running, thanks to a serendipitous set of events between founders Cox and Morgan and local Walker County officials.
Cox himself has a farming background from his childhood home in Ohio. He moved to the Chattanooga area a few years ago, and began working with the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga in creating aquaponics setups and fostering sustainability initiatives.
“I moved my other business here and in that nationalization — I took my other company national — I was inspired,” said Cox. “I felt that we could do a lot with a little simple technology.”
Cox was looking for a new place to create a farm, and in conversations with Walker County, discovered that not only was property available, but that nearby Ridgeland High School had already begun pursuing their own aquaponics venture. Cox saw great potential for collaboration.
The farm, once fully up and running, will hopefully employ 10 full-time workers as well as a rotating handful of local students on a part-time basis. Cox hopes that many of the students involved with Ridgeland High’s program will want to come work at Inner-City Aquaponics and see their newfound skills and knowledge put to practical applications.
“Our goal would be to be able to use the information that Mr. Davis gives these students and them use it in a real world application and have real money coming into their pockets from a Walker County education,” he said.
The tilapia at Inner-City Aquaponics, still very young, were purchased as fingerlings to get the business started, but Morgan and Cox plan on retaining a few adults each year for breeding purposes and hopefully fostering a fish-growing partnership with Ridgeland High’s aquaponics program.
Cox has hopes that the fish and vegetables provided by each organization may even be put to use to help allay the cost of sourcing school lunches.
“We would really like Ridgeland High students to help provide food to Ridgeland High School,” said Cox.
Walker County officials have been hoping for a sustainably-minded business venture to come to the area for some time, and were pleased to offer Cox and Morgan a chance to lease the old Rossville High School field property.
“She has given us this land on a very long-term lease,” said Cox.
Nonetheless, though she was eager to see such an exciting venture come to Rossville, Walker County commissioner Bebe Heiskell wanted to make sure that Cox and Morgan had what it took to be successful. She told them specifically to “make sure that we got it up and running slowly and deliberately and delicately,” said Cox.
At a ceremonial planting Tuesday, May 22, Cox, Morgan and Heiskell together laid a plat of planted lettuce seeds in a large water trough, and all officials in attendance agreed that the farm held great promise.
“It really is great for us to see an application like this happening and not just an idea,” said Walker County economic development director Larry Brooks.
Cox credits Heiskell for her tactful approach to helping the farm set up its venture.
“Her progressiveness and her etiquette and her suave have made this all possible,” he said.
Now, he cannot wait to share the benefits of the farm with the greater Walker County and Chattanooga area communities.
“It’s been a gift to be involved with this project and I would like to share that gift with everyone else,” he said. “The county lines are drawn, but the lines of doing good are not.”
Growing a stronger community
“The idea for all this came from a movie,” said Cox, who admits he had a paradigm shift after viewing the 2003 film “Beyond Borders” starring Angelina Jolie.
The film made him think about the definite struggles that communities around the world face with shortages of any food at all, much less local, healthy fare.
“We can no longer exclude ourselves and think that everyone else will help us take care of the food problem,” said Cox.
“We do have younger children and I guess that was what gave us the urge to push forward with this,” said Morgan.
In order to keep the movement going, however, Inner-City Aquaponics is going to become more than just a place to grow food; its founders hope to grow ideas and inspiration as well.
In approximately three months, Cox and Morgan hope to have classes up and running at Inner-City Aquaponics. Costs per class would be minimal — perhaps five dollars, Cox estimates — and topics would range from how-to's on building your own backyard aquaponics culture, to gardening, nutrition and even solar power setups. Some of the larger classes will take place at the Rossville Athletic Center, where a 40-seat lecture area has been reserved.
“We will be able to teach them to make systems for under $300,” said Cox. He previously made a setup at UTC for under $10, though he is not yet revealing the secret.
“That’s for the classes,” he laughed.
Interested community members who want to grow their own produce aquaponically do not have to have a commercial fish setup to do so; part of the classes will cover how to create a system with a common home aquarium full of small ornamental fish.
Also in the works are programs for children to learn about farm culture by helping to raise and care for some of the animals, including rabbits, chickens and ducks.
“We have ten to twenty high school and middle school volunteers that show up on a regular and daily basis,” said Cox. The students, he explained, eagerly till the ground, plant seeds and feed the chickens and ducks and rabbits, happy to have a chance to be around the barnyard animals, which many students had never seen before.
So far, nearly two dozen Rossville citizens have wandered by the old track and field out of curiosity and have offered their assistance in seeing the farm come to life. “They’ve just been showing up and saying ‘Hey, can we help?’,” said Cox.
In fact, everything so far created at the farm has been done by volunteers, Cox explained. “Everything you see here has been done by junior high and middle school volunteers...I’d say we’ve had about 300 volunteer hours.”
“Out of those children, we’ve had expressed interest in the chickens, the fish, the rabbits, any type of animal husbandry,” Cox said. “More importantly, they take food home.”
The influx of volunteers has both surprised and pleased Cox, and has changed the way he and Morgan view the future potential of the farm.
“When they started volunteering, our operation kind of shifted,” said Cox. “All we wanted to do was grow vegetables and we ended up getting a lot more.”
“We built something not for ourselves and we can’t stop the blessing coming in,” he said.
The farm also hopes to go futuristic and completely sustainable, as plans for solar panels and energy-capturing methods are already in the works.
Furthermore, Inner-City Aquaponics has a definite expansion on the way, with tanks ready to be set up all the way across the field.
“The expansion here is also bought and paid for to go six tanks wide,” said Cox.
Once the farm is completely up and running, Cox expects it to produce 250 heads of lettuce per week, in addition to the other crops.
Cox and Morgan are very excited about the potential for providing fresh, safe healthy foods to the community at large, and hope that the system they has built could be replicated in or even transported to areas in need, helping to solve food availability issues in rural areas worldwide.
“This farm is not static; it is mobile. It is made with very simple products that can be found and sourced locally wherever you are in the world,” said Cox.
The two have, in essence, created “a farm that can be picked up on a forklift and dropped down wherever it is needed,” said Cox.
Should the opportunity become available, Cox and Morgan hope that they can help build small aquaponics setups to be shipped overseas.
“Our goal is to be able to ship the mobile parts in shipping containers with photovoltaic elements and have them ready and operational when they arrive,” said Cox.
Nonetheless, as Heiskell asked the pair to do, they are starting small for now, and are happy to do so.
Cox and Morgan encourage local citizens to come visit the farm and see the ongoing progress, as well as make plans for what vegetables they hope to pick come harvest time.
“It’s really Rossville’s facility,” said Cox. “We’re just visiting.”
“I’m just happy to be in a position where working feels good.”