Argo-Ecology: Turning Garbage into Gold

Written by Camron McDonald

Agro-ecology is a term that refers to an organic (meaning no synthetic chemicals) system of growing food in which all the waste products from one part of the system are used as fuel or fertilizer for another part of the system.  In this way, agro-ecological farms are inherently sustainable, just like a forest or an ocean, because they produce no waste products and they don’t eat up scarce resources that cannot be readily renewed.

An ecological farm is highly integrated, meaning that all the different parts of the system work together.  For example, an ecological farm is likely to be growing both animals and plants because animals and plants can benefit from each other.  The manure from the animals is used as compost for the plants; Pigs and cattle consume any excess food waste; Chickens can be used in the fields to eat pests, till the soil, and fertilize on the spot.

Large organizations such as Heifer International and the UN Food Agency have adopted the terms “agro-ecology” or “ecological farming” as their way of describing this highly efficient method of  growing food but another term that could be used  is “Permaculture”.  This term was coined in the 1970’s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.  While the principles of permaculture can be applied at any scale from dense urban settlements to individual homes, one of the most important aspects of this design discipline is that all wastes become resources.
Growing Power, a two acre farm in inner city Milwaukee is a fantastic example of a  small operation that is finding creative ways to use all the waste it produces while  growing tons of organic vegetables, meat and dairy for a community that would not otherwise have access to healthy foods.

One of the coolest projects at Growing Power is the fish/watercress tanks.


Each year, Growing Power brings in a significant portion of their income through the sale of Tilapia and Yellow Perch which are grown in tanks in greenhouses.   As the fish dirty the water, it is drained through a bed of watercress (a valuable and nutritious green, leafy plant).  The dirty water feeds the watercress and the watercress further alters the waste into nutrients that are safe for the other veggies in the greenhouse.  After running through the roots of all these plants, the water is now clean and excess run-off can be pumped back into the fish tank. Genius!

In a conventional fish farm, the dirty  water would have been poured down the drain, or flushed into the closest available waterway, ultimately creating problems with pollution.  On a conventional vegetable farm, expensive and potentially harmful chemicals would be shipped from off the farm to fertilize.

In a conventional system, fish manure is seen as  a liability.  In an ecological system, the fish manure is an asset as valuable as gold.

Go ahead and take a look in your garbage.  How much of it could be re-purposed, re-used, or composted?  You might just find out you are wealthier than you think!

On May 4th, 2011, Jefferson Park Food Forest’s steering committee will host a design party that will feature a free slide show about home and community permaculture. The event will be held on Wednesday evening at 6:00 pm, in the Beacon Hill Library meeting room, 2821 Beacon Avenue South. Food and drinks will be provided. All are welcome.

If you are interested in attending this exciting permaculture project or learning more about other local events, please visit the Jefferson Park Food Forest website.

About the Author:

Camron McDonald is a graduate student at Antioch University’s Center for Creative Change.  She is studying social change, sustainability and food.

For more information on sustainable food systems – including some work being done in Guatemala:
http://www.agroecology.org/index.html
http://www.permaculture.org/nm/index.php/site/index/
http://www.idex.org/blog/tag/agroecology
http://www.heifer.org/site/c.edJRKQNiFiG/b.485971/
http://www.growingpower.org/aquaponics.htm
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