Wrote an article for the SM Observer on Los Angeles' largest aquaponic farm EvoFarm.
As we approach the halfway mark of 2011 it can be noted that one of the most pressing food trends is the reclaiming control of our food sources.
Whether it’s Jamie Oliver and Michelle Obama’s war on childhood obesity to Mark Zuckerberg recent admission that his year long goal is that he’s only eating meat that he’s slaughtered (and thus eating a mainly vegetarian diet the rest of the time), more and more people are realizing that factory farming and over-processed food aren’t the healthiest and humane ways to get the job done. But how to stop the cycle and reclaim our food sources? Well, it’s simple: one of the easiest ways to take control is to grow (or kill) it yourself.
Which leads us to EvoFarm in Mar Vista.
Didn’t know there was a farm in Mar Vista? Well it’s not surprising considering it has only been there for a few months and is the size of a two-car garage. But what’s more surprising is that considering its size the farm has the potential to produce 15,000 plants a year.
Nestled next to a suburban home off of Venice Boulevard EvoFarm is only a prototype, but even so at this point it is the largest aquaponics system of its kind in Los Angeles. Aqua-What-ics? Maybe that large unusual word is throwing you off. So maybe, just maybe, you’ve heard of hydroponics (growing plants in water and liquid fertilizer without soil… probably when referring to the growing of marijuana), or maybe you’ve heard of aquaculture aka aquafarming (the farming of aquatic animals like fish and crustaceans in netted off coves or in tanks), or maybe you haven’t heard of either of them (which could totally be the case, and absolutely no judgments).
Well aquaponics takes these two ideas and smashes them together to create a food production method that has the highest crop yields while using the least amount of water with no waste. It is the most sustainable method of food production and exceeds organic certification standards (while most soil farms require 3 years to obtain organic certification, aquaponics farms can obtain it in a few months).
“Even though 80% of population of America lives in a city there are a few places where commercial urban farming is possible (from a logistics standpoint). Fortunately in LA you can run a business in your backyard selling land off the land,” explains EvoFarm owner Rosenstein. “Aquaponics is really cool urban farming, but it’s a path. I believed in this enough to take the plunge. I’m a full time farmer!”
In a nutshell, fish (at EvoFarm: Tilapia) are raised in water tanks and eat a diet of plant protein (non-soy). The byproduct of this is highly fertilized water that is then transferred to growing beds that grow a variety of non-creeping fruits and veggies (such as tomatoes, lettuce, kale, leeks, cilantro, etc). Due to the richness of the water the plants easily grow two to three times faster than it would in the ground, with far greater planting density, and are full of flavor (something that those plants grown with hydroponic fertilizers have been know to lack). “There’s nothing like it with standard growing,” notes Rosenstein. “There’s so much life in that water, you can get 12 planting cycles per year.”
Before he became an exuberant urban farmer Rosenstein was working full time for a company that made documentaries for PBS. It was during this time working as a producer on such films as “America’s Family Farms” and “Growing a Greener School” that Rosenstein became interested in managing one’s own food source. “In the end you can’t control the world, you can only control how you spend your life.”
Then his wife signed up for a class on aquaponics. Turns out the person teaching the class claimed to be an expert. He wasn’t. But through that experience the Rosenstein family started to visit aquaponics farms and study successful systems. Most modern methodology comes from the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) created by Dr. James Rakocy. This system later evolved in Hawaii. “This system later evolved in Hawaii with Tom and Suzanne Man of Friendly Aquaponics on the Big Island in Hawaii. They have been the people who influenced me the most. They created a LD (or Low Density) system.” An aquaponics system, which runs on one-tenth the electricity of the original UVI systems, and still generates the same amount of vegetable production.
So with that information in hand Rosenstein went to good old Google Earth looking for open land within a few blocks from his condo and contacted his neighbors about starting a farm in their backyard. Turns out one of them was interested. “The greatest accomplishment of this urban farming adventure is building a community. Peter Graef and his family are a great inspiration. Now I know a ton of his family members, their friends, and neighbors.”
It’s definitely been a lifestyle shift. “It’s not a film, it’s a farm,” explains Rosenstein. “Farms grow all year long, it’s in our face. It tells a story through a living breathing example.” “That being said there is so much to learn. There are all the levels to Aquaponics and the farming components. I also need to learn all about the entrepreneurial side, launching a business.“
There’s been no money exchanged on this adventure just the idea of growing food to feed both the Graef and Rosenstein families with the excess being sold in a community CSA (community supported agriculture aka boxes of locally grown food (usually organic) you can pick up once a week). “Food can bring us all together, and in reality everyone needs to eat.”
Perhaps you might be wondering if it’s possible to actually sell food grown in your backyard (that it wouldn’t be restricted by yards and yards of bureaucrat Red Tape...). Turns out that in 2010 the city of Los Angeles passed the Food, Freedom, and Flowers Act, which allows for commercial backyard farms.
This all came about because in 2003 by Tara Kolla of wanted to grow flowers out of her backyard. So she created SilverLake Farms, a ½ acre garden farm in her backyard with the goal being able to sell her flowers seasonally at local farmers’ markets on the Eastside (it’s hard to find organic, local flowers. Most of them are flown in from abroad and/or covered in pesticides.)
But after six years at market Kolla was told to stop. The LA City’s Department of Building & Safety ordered her to stop selling her flowers or pay a fine/serve six months in jail. Apparently selling homegrown flowers was illegal because it was not considered "Truck Gardening." Truck Gardening is a farm where vegetables are grown for market. It was allowed in LA City residential zones but City Planning’s codebook manual didn’t have any information on what Truck Gardening so officials consulted Webster’s Dictionary for a definition of the term. Because Webster’s definition of Truck Gardening only mentioned vegetables, City Planning interpreted this to mean that it’s illegal to sell anything grown in residential gardens unless it’s a vegetable, this included fruit and flowers. So Kolla started growing vegetables and went to City Hall. “They raised Hell and amended the law to make it legal that you can run a business in from your backyard,” notes Rosenstein. “They’re one of our local heroes. They’re a big part of the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
And that’s what EvoFarm, it’s the next evolution from the result of the Food, Freedom, and Flowers Act. Allowing us to the reclaiming control of our food sources. “That’s why I chose the name EvoFarm,” explains Rosenstein. “Like all of life it’s moving forward, evolving towards our next step.”