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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Growing Food in a Bio-Shelter

Air Date: Week of

Reporter Miriam Landman visits John Reid, who runs a thriving business raising fish and vegetables together in an artificial eco-system in Amherst, Massachusetts.


CURWOOD: A few years ago, Living on Earth reported on what we called a quiet revolution in food production. With just a small greenhouse and some large fish tanks, John Reid pioneered a method to raise fish and vegetables together. It's an almost waste-free artificial ecosystem that he called a bio-shelter. Today, John Reid's fish and vegetable business is thriving. His modest greenhouse has given way to a much larger high-tech facility. He's also learned some humbling lessons about turning a bold idea into a real-life business that's also ecologically sustainable. Miriam Landman reports from Amherst, Massachusetts.

(Bird song)

LANDMAN: You can see it clearly from the road. Up the dirt drive, beyond a parking lot of old trucks and tractors, stands a bubblish white structure that looks like something from another planet.

REID: On a winter night, when the snow is slightly melting, it's foggy, and we have our grow lights on, it can look like a spaceship landed. The traffic slows down slightly as it goes by on the road and picks up again as people go by.

LANDMAN: John Reid owns and runs this 60,000-square-foot facility he calls a bio-shelter. It stands out not only for its great size, but also because of what goes on inside.

(Clanking, humming)

REID: The real uniqueness of what we do, is that we grow fish in the lower level, and the waste from the fish becomes fertilizer for the plants, and the plants clean the water for the fish. A linked, recirculating system.

(Water sprays)

LANDMAN: The process is organic, but the bio-shelter has an industrial feel. There are concrete floors, metal pipes and grates, and a computer that alerts workers to equipment problems.

(Voice on loudspeaker)

LANDMAN: The bottom floor houses several fish tanks that look like huge above-ground swimming pools. Each holds 200,000 gallons of water and tens of thousands of pinkish gray fish called tilapia. Tilapia are a commonly farmed fish. They're hardy and they're cheap dates, since they eat a grain-based feed rather than meat or fish meal.

(Splashing water; footfalls)

LANDMAN: On the bio-shelter's sunny upper floor, a sea of basil, arugula, and watercress plants grow in rows on long tables. The nutrient-rich water from the fish tanks below flows through gutters under the plants. Their roots soak up some of it, and what's left over drains back down to the fish. The shared water supply means no chemicals.

REID: We grow insects to eat the insects that we don't want, because we can't use any pesticides on the plants because it would kill the fish immediately.

LANDMAN: The essence of this pest control approach is captured on a bumper sticker on an employee's car out front. It reads, "Good Bugs Rule." The good bugs live in a botanical garden around the perimeter of this upper floor. John Reid's business is blossoming along with his plants. He sells his herbs year-round to farmers’ markets and most major supermarkets in New England. But he sells most of his fish to only one store, the Mei Tung Supermarket in Boston's Chinatown.

(Voices speak in Chinese)

LANDMAN: A couple times a week, John Reid brings a truckload of live tilapia to the market's owner, Richard Kong. Mr. Kong says the bio-shelter fish taste much better than frozen and imported tilapia.

KONG: So I think John should make as much as he could, and grow faster.

REID: We're growing them as fast as we can. Some more are coming in about two weeks.

(Store sounds fade to quietude)

LANDMAN: Back home, John Reid sits on a porch attached to his house, just up the drive from the busy bio-shelter. Finches fly around the screened-in room. This is one of his few moments of calm. These days he's getting more orders than he can fill, but he's not complaining.

REID: The revenue that we set out to have, the percent margin, the profitability, that has all showed up, being very close to what we projected.

LANDMAN: The bio-shelter covers almost all of its expenses, and John Reid expects his company will start showing a profit as soon as he gets two more tanks stocked with fish. But the road to success has not been easy.

REID: You know, at times you have to go swimming to the bottom of a fish tank, and you've got to wear regulated gear and go down. And I've spent sometimes five, six hours underwater, futzing with a pair of pliers and a screen to keep the fish from getting out the drain. Or being up on top of an inflated roof, you know, in a windstorm, patching a hole. I never would have thought that rock climbing skills would some day help me save my business.

LANDMAN: And with 40 employees and hefty winter heating bills, the bio-shelter is expensive to run. But its productivity helps cut costs. John Reid says that the bio-shelter can produce up to 80 times the volume of crops and as much as 200 times the number of fish that could be grown in the same amount of space outdoors. This level of efficiency came after years of tinkering with the system in a smaller greenhouse. And as his facilities have changed, so has John Reid.

REID: I started in a sense to have this be a metaphor, and example, and I was very much into the whole philosophy of it when I first started out. And didn't really focus as much on what we had grabbed by the tail. And then, like, the last probably ten years, I focused just really on a very micro level, in terms of how to make it work as a little mini ecosystem.

LANDMAN: Originally, John Reid hoped to see lots of community-based bio-shelters built in urban areas. But he realized that fish manure can't be treated and disposed of easily in cities. John Reid's concerns about water pollution also led to his decision not to expand his current structure.

REID: If we made the site too big, we couldn't affordably spread the manure responsibly.

LANDMAN: Instead, he plans to build a network of bio-shelters across the northern United States.

REID: And that keeps the manure level where it becomes a resource and an asset, rather than a liability.

LANDMAN: It also keeps shipping costs down, and it means John Reid can continue to deliver live fish and herbs to stores within 24 hours from when they were harvested.

REID: Having to make it be ecologically viable has really steered us into some strategic advantages that I think are much more powerful than had we followed a more traditional sort of agribusiness model of building one huge farm in the middle of the country and shipping things everywhere.

LANDMAN: As the aquaculture industry takes off, more and more businesspeople are showing an interest in what's going on here at the bio-shelter. John Reid is happy others want to learn about his unique system of food production, but he also wants to make sure they see the big picture.

REID: They want to just buy the nuts, the bolts, the pipes, and the blueprints, and then run it themselves. And we've talked them out of that, that you really can't. The physical piping is maybe 20 percent of the business. It's how you manage the fish, how you nurture the system, how you balance it. . . the intuition that you have to build to learn how to run it well, stably, day in, day out, consistently. That's something I've yet to see anyone be able to sell as a package.

LANDMAN: So rather than handing over his blueprints, John Reid is about to set up joint ventures with people in China and Eastern Europe. These start-ups will benefit from the knowledge he has gained about balancing, under one roof, the delicate interactions between fish, plants, and insects, while also having to work within the human world of commerce, outside the bubble. For Living on Earth, I'm Miriam Landman.



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