Re Vision House

Winter 1997-1998

By Norma Jane Langford

If you’ve got a green thumb and a green house, and you’re near a city, and there’s snow on the sidewalk, you’ve got the makings of a profitable small business. Pricey urban restaurants will pay almost anything for fresh green-and-white nasturtium leaves, chocolate mint, and red impatiens, and ethnic restaurants will scoop frisky tilapia right out of your styrofoam cooler. That’s the take-home message from Yvonne Miller-Booker and Tom Libby of Dorchester, Massa­chusetts.

Yvonne did not start out to be a fish farmer. She was really trying to drag reluctant, sometimes traumatized teenagers into responsible adulthood. Armed with her dreams and The Word, and two abandoned buildings, she created Re-Vision House, a transitional home for pregnant and parenting teens. Convinced that gardens would help her “young mums” reinvent their lives, she persuaded an assortment of donors to add a three story greenhouse, a fish farm, and a community garden.

At first she thought of the greenhouse as simply a way to improve air quality and help heat the house, but along the way it turned into a demonstration project, a collaboration with the University of Massachusetts and MIT, a place for courses in horticulture, agriculture, fish farming, marketing and sales. Now it’s the model for a larger commercial greenhouse and child care center where young mothers can work year round. “The dream is the Re-Vision House itself becomes economically secure – for all of us to become economically sound,” Yvonne says.

The inspiration for the greenhouse came from Anna Edey on Martha’s Vineyard. “She’s the first one that actually made this seem like it could be a reality,” says Yvonne. “[She told me] we could certainly grow and package greens to sell to restaurants and health food stores.” Tom Libby spends his days hurrying to build a foundation under Yvonne’s dreams. He works to master the equipment, to learn the requirements of tilapia and tatsoi, to grow enough squash blossoms.

The tilapia came from Ocean Arks International in Falmouth, and Sea Grant at MIT. Their fish tank, called a cell, looks like a sturdy wire basket with a polypropylene lining. It sits on the first floor of the greenhouse, filled with 55 gallons of water – normally kept at 80 degrees – and approximately 65 orange fingerlings. The fish are so frisky, Tom has to keep a lid on.

“We had a little problem initially because the electricity went off – in January,” he says. But as the temperature outside dropped to five above, the fishes’ water only dropped to 55. “So I have a great respect for this glazing system, and I’m glad I was the guy that went around with the caulking gun.”

“The word is this is the fish that Christ fed the multitudes, so they have been farmed in outside ponds that long. Lakes in Africa will have seven or eight separate species.

“They are supposedly marketable in four months. So they were hatched in the second week of July. Ocean Arks brought them to us the last week in July as fry.” Tom was aiming for Thanksgiving for the first harvest and was looking for customers who would take them whole. “I took them to a Chinese restaurant in Wellesley”, he says, “and they gave me five dollars a piece for them swimming around in the cooler. Oriental fish stores in the South End carry them live.”

Richard Boylan, research assistant at Ocean Arks, explains how the fish farm works. Tilapia esculandus, a.k.a. pennyfish, originally came from Egypt. They are a fast growing hybrid, a cross between Tilapia mozambiqua and Tilapia honorum; they are sterile and 99 per cent male. Although in the wild they subsist entirely on vegetation, in captivity, “we supplement with commercial fish food made for trout.”

They will also eat fish eggs, so they need to be separated from breeding fish and tiny hatchlings. Tilapia mothers normally incubate eggs in their mouths, but if stressed, they will spit them out, and other fish will eat them.

Sixty to 65 tilapia will grow comfortably to eating size in a 55 gallon tank. Apparently they judge the size of their tank not by the number of other fish in it, but by the amount of ammonia in the water. If fish farmers can keep the concentration of ammonia low, “The tilapia will continue to grow until they start bumping into each other,” says Boylan.

To reduce ammonia, Ocean Arks pumps air into the bottom of the fish cell. The column of bubbles then “lifts” waste water into a second cell. “It’s like an air stone in an aquarium,” says Boylan. “All the water above it gets moved up with the bubbles. You can’t move water five feet, but you can move it six inches.”

The second cell, another lined basket, acts as a bio-filter. This one is filled with rocks, rock dust, plastic “peanuts”, bacteria, plants, snails and earthworms.

Porous red lava pumice, similar to the rocks used in gas grills, provides a lot of surface area for bacteria to colonize. The bacteria, from local ponds with high levels of nutrients and from commercial nitrobacter dealers,”use ammonia itself for food,” says Boylan.

Plants growing on top of the rocks send roots down, releasing secondary chemicals – plant hormones – that also help to condition the water. These plants are mostly single-celled blue-green algae; cyanobacteria – those able to photosynthesize light as a plant does, and filamentous algae, but because the rocks provide a base, the bio-filter can also support more complicated flora. Ocean Arks has experimented with tomatoes, eggplant, nasturtiums, peppers, white ginger, impatiens, primroses and a dwarf banana that is now 4 feet tall.

Bacteria, snails and, surprisingly, red wiggly earthworms live among the plant roots. “We didn’t expect this,” says Boylan, “It just happened. The worms don’t drown because water doesn’t come up to the very top of the bio-filters, and also, they’re pretty tolerant of water. There’s more going on in any of our systems than we know.”

Water from the bio-filter cell then goes into a third cell topped with duckweed. “Think of the fish cell as consumption, the bio-filter as transformation, and the algae cell as production, growing food for the fish,” says Boylan, “You can come in in the morning, reach your hand into the tank and scoop up a handful of algae to toss into the fish tank.”

The algae also come from local ponds. These and other floating plants, such as water hyacinths and duckweed, also take up ammonia.

“As long as you’re inoculating with bacteria, plants and algae that can condition the water, you can use regular Boston city water,” says Boylan, “But the optimal thing is to collect some pond water from a local park or nature preserve.”

At Re-Vision House, Ocean Ark is experimenting with an additional refinement, a plant pipe. “We call them grow tubes,” Boylan says. “They can be planted with any plant that grows in a hydroponic system – like bush basil. They do the same job as the algae.”

On the third floor of the greenhouse, Tom Libby fills a series of long, narrow, wooden drawers with potting soil. These can be pulled out for maximum sun, then pushed back when someone wants to walk around them. The six tiers have four to six drawers each, with 38 boxes in all. The longest ones at the bottom measure about 3 feet. Those in the next three tiers, about 21/2 feet. He will plant all of these with mesclun mix. Then mints and edible impatiens will go into the two short, partially shaded tiers at the top. The drawers will be irrigated by a drip hose on a timer set to go off four times a day.

Outside in the community garden, Tom marvels at what appeals to the upscale restaurants that buy his produce. This summer buyers paid 20 cents apiece for male squash blossoms. They asked for baby summer squash with blossoms attached, something that will grow in very hot, humid greenhouses, and they’re clamoring for nasturtium flowers and basil tops.

Tom’s basic mesclun mix includes “Alaska” nasturtiums and leaves – “the variegated leaf is pretty in a salad,” parsley, seven or eight varieties of baby lettuce; chicory; claytonia; purslane; Vitamin Green from Johnny’s Selected Seeds; Autumn Poem (a green type of flowering pac choi); Lettusy-Type – ”a type of Chinese cabbage that is sweeter than cabbage, makes great cole slaw;” garlic chives; tatsoi; mizuna; red and green mustard; milkweed; mache – corn salad; “Silvetta” wild arugula; and arugula.

From the herb garden he harvests chocolate mint tops, borage – ”leaves are used for summer time tea, flowers go into the mesclun mix” – salad burnet, garlic chive blossoms, purple fennel flowers, and purple fennel leaves.

“Brandywine” tomatoes, a “big, ugly heirloom variety, 21/4 pounds on the scales, great tomato taste,” also find appreciative fans.

“The third week in July, our first customer [brought in] $2,000 worth of business, even without tomatoes. He’s been taking 10 to 12 pounds of mesclun mix per week.”

As Tom moves the mesclun indoors, he hopes his customers won’t notice the difference. “Purple ruffles basil – a dollar an ounce – it will love the third floor.”

Yvonne Miller-Booker does everything she can to encourage her young mothers to sample the garden’s pricey produce. She offers workshops on planning and preparing nutritious meals, and she’s proud that of the 50 babies born to Re-Vision House residents since it opened, only one weighed less than 6 pounds.

Of course not many 17- 18-year-olds choose mizuna for a snack, and getting junk food junkies to ask for eggplant may prove to be the ultimate dream. But Yvonne’s not one to give up easily. “Many of our young mothers … have such negative attitudes. I’m confident that much of their change in attitude is change in diet.”

“It’s not just the kids,” says Tom Libby. “Iceberg lettuce is grown because it works well in certain climates, lasts forever, and ships beautifully. That’s why it’s grown, not because it’s healthy. Look at the nutritional value of mesclun mix – beet greens, baby kale, baby collards, a weed here and there – how many micro-nutrients can you miss?”

Steve Allegro, proprietor of Regalia Restaurant in Boston’s South End, makes up his menu to suit whatever the garden and greenhouse can supply. “I get all my herbs from here,” he says.

“During the summer, these are the things we use for specials. Hopefully next year we’ll be able to plan a little more. This is a relationship that will be for a while. If this stuff’s here, and good quality, I’ll buy it.”

Norma Jane Langford lives in Quincy, Mass., and writes occasionally for The MOF&G. Since this article was written, Judy Lieberman has taken Tom Libby’s place as “farm” manager at Re-Vision House.

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