Fish Farming in Detroit

  • Noah Link is the co-owner of Food Field. It's a small farm in Detroit's Boston-Edison neighborhood. Link calls the converted shipping container his "post-industrial" farm house. (Photo by Mercedes Mejia)

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

The Detroit Planning Commission recently approved the city’s new Urban Agriculture Ordinance. The action takes the city a step closer to officially recognizing the dozens of urban farms and gardens scattered across the city. The ordinance also defines the kinds of projects that would be allowed, such as farm stands, orchards or greenhouses. Mercedes Mejia reports some residents are experimenting with aquaponics. It’s a method of growing crops and fish at the same time:

Noah Link: “Over here is our chicken coop. We have about 42 chickens and four ducks so far. You can hear the ducks – they’ve awfully loud and hungry probably.”

Noah Link is the owner of Food Field. He lives and works in Detroit. His four acre property is on the site of a former elementary school. Imagine a farm tucked away in the city.

“So if you go a few blocks one way there are huge historical mansions, and you go a few blocks the other way and it’s all rundown old shops, and total poverty, and we’re right in between.”

Link and his business partner worked on several farms across the country. So they knew owning a farm wouldn’t be easy, but they’re doing the hard work. On the land are all kinds of crops, some chickens, a beehive, and a young orchard of fruit and nut trees, and there’s a hoop house to grow vegetables year-round.

“And we’ve just built an aquaponics system to be able to raise fish in there, which I’ll show you.”

Aquaponics is a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture – growing plants in water, and fish farming. Link’s system is a long underground tank for the fish, and raised beds above the tank where he plans to grow greens and tomatoes.

“And it takes the best of both of those in a self-sustaining system. The plants grow out of the wastewater from the fish that just gets circulated with the pump and they clean out the water to keep it safe for all the fish in the tank.”

A lot of people who do aquaponics raise tilapia. They’re fast-growing fish. But they’re also tropical and need warm water. So Link wants to raise bluegill and catfish because they can withstand colder water, and save him potentially thousands of dollars in heating bills.

He’s also trying to fill a void in the city. Detroit often lacks access to fresh produce and Link wants to change that with locally-grown fish and vegetables.

“Really what I’m interested in is showing different kinds of farming models that other people can apply either in their gardens or on bigger scales, and just producing as much food as we can sustainably here in the city.”

But Link, and others who’ve joined the urban agriculture movement in Detroit, have been working pretty much under the radar.

Underwood: “It’s not really illegal. The only thing that’s illegal is keeping farm animals and we’re not changing that quite yet.”

Kathryn Lynch Underwood is a city planner with the city of Detroit. She helped create the new Urban Agriculture Ordinance.

“Really, Detroit will, I think, be able to blossom and position itself as a global leader in how cities will feed themselves as well as positioning ourselves to have impact on urban food systems.”

The ordinance will go to the Detroit City Council and Mayor Dave Bing for consideration early next year. If it’s approved, it could open the door to more fish farming in Detroit.

For the Environment Report, I’m Mercedes Mejia.