MEMPHIS, Tenn. — There's new life blooming in an old South Memphis warehouse, and there's something fishy about this operation.
It's called aquaponics, and some call the new gold rush when it comes to farming. The way it works is pretty simple — you use fish poop to grow of the freshest vegetables you'd ever taste.
"Leafy green things grow quicker in aquaponics," said Daryl Leven, who retired from his job in corporate America and started New Way Aquaponic Farms.
The future of urban farming growing out of an old dairy testing center. Aquaponics combines fish farming with hydroponics, where plants grow in water instead of soil.
"Most agriculture as we know it is rural-based. This is urban-based," Leven said. "This could be done throughout Memphis."
The 40 tilapia fish swimming in his 200-gallon tank help fuel this indoor farm. He feeds them and bacteria from their waste makes plant food.
"There is ammonia in the fish poop and that's what we're looking for," Leven said. "It's really the liquid part versus the solid part."
The fish poop is drained into a separate tank and converted into nitrated water. Nitrate acts as plant food and makes plants grow.
The process of aquaponics is complete when the plants are harvested and the fry — another name for baby fish — get big enough to eat.
"What did we say aquaponics was about? One man's poop is another man's food," Leven said.
Leven enjoys sharing his passion for aquaponics with school children. Students from Circles of Success Learning Academy learned about the process firsthand, from feeding the fish to eventually harvesting their own vegetables.
"I want them to understand that food doesn't come from Kroger," Leven said. "It doesn't come from McDonalds. It comes from a seed, and if you nurture the seed and use well-proven scientific principles you can grow an abundant harvest."
Right now New Way Aquaponics turns out about 100 plants a week. That's just enough to use as a teaching tool and to sell at the local farmers market every few weeks, but the goal is to grow this operation much bigger.
Leven plans to open a 4,000-square-foot greenhouse in six months and supply fresh vegetables and herbs to local restaurants. Aquaponics allows him to grow year-round regardless of weather.
He admits is not cheaper than soil farming — yet — but he believes the benefits are worth the extra expense.
"We're still in the infancy period with aquaponics in America, but it's just like anything. Electric cars. The price will go down as we get bigger in scale," he said.
Leven was recently honored at a small farm expo for best management practices and as small farmer of the year.
He points out that there isn't a grocery store for miles in the South Memphis neighborhood where his farm is located.
"Right now the USDA funds a lot of rural projects, but this is an urban project," Leven said. "They're looking at urban agriculture as a way to help in our food deserts, as you know we have throughout Memphis."
You can do this at home. Aquaponic kits sell for about $300. You can have a 10 gallon fish tank, enjoy your goldfish and have your herbs growing above it.