Aquaponics, stewardship, and local economies: or, the Bacon Manifesto

A couple years ago somebody tried to start a sturgeon farm in Melrose near our part of Florida. It didn’t go well. From what I can tell the Water Management District authorities had been leaning on locals for years to switch to low-flow toilets and other appliances at great expense, take short showers, put in low-water landscaping, etc. This is not a problem in itself. The Floridan aquifer is indeed at risk, and our springs are drying up from groundwater overuse. The people in this area lived there because they liked the springs. They were happy to oblige.

It was when, after all that, the WMD tried to grant this fish farm close to half a million gallons/day for free that stuff got real.

Many parts of the world have a history of extractive industries. They create some dead-end jobs, foul up the land until they’ve taken all the goodies, and then leave. One of northern Florida’s most impressive current examples is phosphate mining. Phosphate mining digs up forest and farm land and turns it into impressive piles of slag and slime pits. (Seriously, that’s what the waste ponds are called. Slime pits.) Sometimes the slag piles disappear into sinkholes and everybody gets to drink it. The slime pits are supposed to turn into normal ponds eventually, but it’s a long-term process and suffice it to say we still don’t know if it really works. And most of all, phosphate mining uses so. much. water. With our nutso geology, using a lot of water makes the ground collapse and swallow up houses and sometimes the people inside them.

Blimey! What a beauty! This epic sinkhole opened up under a stack of mildly radioactive phosphate mine waste in 1994. Image; data sources here, here, here.

Blimey! What a beauty! This epic sinkhole opened up in Polk County, FL under a stack of mildly radioactive phosphate mine waste in 1994. Image source;  info here, here, and here.

My mom’s mom grew up in a dead-end coal mining mountain village in Kentucky. The only reason she got out was that she was hot and managed to marry a guy who took her out of town. The reason she stayed out is the stigma of divorce at the time meant that after the marriage fell apart she couldn’t ever come back home. It’s not a great story. It’s not exactly a tale of American Dream triumph. But that’s ok. There are worse things than being exiled from a strip-mining hellhole where you can’t work the land or drink the water anyway, and the only way to get life’s necessities is through a company store system painstakingly designed to keep you in debt slavery until you die.

So I guess what I’m saying is, I hear you. There should no place for that kind of exploitative industry. It is a waste of peoples’ talents and lives. It is a waste of natural resources that you can’t ever put back. And it’s a waste of precious time that we could be using to find better ways to take care of human needs. We can do better.

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That’s why I’m really pumped to have a chance to work with a green technology like aquaponics. Good technologies use cleverness to replace natural resources. If we want to have a sustainable economy we need to start using less of what we have in short supply– water, fertilizer, energy– and more of what we have plenty of– human creativity and manpower.

Growing caviar gives us a chance to have the time and capital we need to develop aquaponics into a really effective commercial-scale system. There are still some things we need to work out, like how best to control the temperature. What the best cultivars are for each kind of vegetable. Things like that. Florida has a lot of great agricultural extension scientists who work on learning how to better grow fish (sturgeon, even!) and vegetables. But we don’t have any who deal with aquaponics. It’s up to us to work these things out ourselves. Alas, research is expensive. So in order to get aquaponics where it needs to go, we need to be able to promise people a piece of a solid pot of gold later in return for money now.

The high value of caviar isn’t all bad either. I’m really glad that with aquaponics we’re able to grow vegetables too, which is something that’s useful to everybody. But if you want to help jump-start a local economy, you might as well make something that’s going to bring home the bacon!

Ohhhhhh bacon. Reminding me that it's lunchtime. Be right back....

Ohhhhhh bacon. You’re reminding me that it’s lunchtime. Be right back….


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To find more about sustainable development in northern Florida, please see the excellent goings-on here at Florida’s Eden and Gainesville Connect.

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