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Issue 2: Community Scale Economics

Urban Aquaculture: Ethnic Markets Sustain New Business

by Beth Ferguson

Urban food production is alive and swimming in three huge tanks of water in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Bob Biagi, founder of FreshMarket Aquafarm, sporting rubber boots and rolled-up sleeves, dips a net into bubbling tanks and lifts out a half dozen silver fish.

Aquaculture is fish farming -- Cultivating fish for food in a controlled environment, such as a tank or pond, and harvesting them when they reach preferred size. Biagi raises tilapia, an easy-to-breed species that is fairly inexpensive to feed and relatively free of parasites and diseases. In a time of over-fishing and degradation of wetland habitats, aquaculture presents itself as an environmentally and socially sound alternative. Biagi's program provides fresh, high-quality fish at a fair price to local ethnic markets, along with potential jobs for vendors.

The aquafarm is situated in a warehouse in an underutilized factory neighborhood of South Holyoke, Massachusetts, an area pleading for economic, social, and environmental renewal. Holyoke, a post-industrial city of 43,000 people, reeks of abandonment. Decaying paper mills line an old canal system and decrepit tenements are the constant victims of arson. In the past, the city consisted primarily of Irish and Polish immigrants; however, Puerto Rican immigrants now make up one-third of the city's population.

In response to the economic and social hardships facing the residents of Holyoke, Biagi proposed his aquaculture idea in 1997 to the board of directors at Nueva Esperanza (New Hope), a local community development umbrella. Nueva Esperanza works primarily with the Puerto Rican community to provide housing services, health promotion and prevention programs, youth activities, and economic development projects.

Starting the aquafarm involved the long process of finding a building, financial support, the necessary equipment and permits, and fingerlings (baby tilapia). Biagi raised the first batch of fish in September of 1999.

Fish farming, as Biagi can attest, sounds a lot easier than it is. It involves close monitoring of the water chemistry and fish health, along with the daily work of feeding the fish, transporting them, and finding a viable market. Besides the challenge of physical labor, aquaculture systems are also expensive. The controlled environment required to grow fish in tanks includes an aerated water circulating system, carbon filters to clean water, fish feed, transporting tanks, and equipment for monitoring the water's chemical composition.

These challenges, as well as competition from countries like Costa Rica, Taiwan, and Jamaica, that sell frozen fish at cheaper prices, have forced Biagi to explore alternative forms of marketing. His target markets include the Puerto Rican community in Holyoke, the Cambodian community of western Massachusetts, and the East and West African communities in southern New England. He has been developing relationships with new vendors in these ethnic communities in hope that they will take over the routes he has mapped out. Biagi brings live fresh tilapia to Holyoke and sells it out of his truck directly to the public. Because this type of fish is not familiar, Biagi also offers prepared samples and recipes.

Although many ethnic communities prefer whole, fresh, locally-grown fish over processed, packaged, and frozen fish from abroad, Biagi faces the hurdle of tilapia being relatively unknown in the United States. He is currently arranging tanks to be placed in small ethnic markets, fish markets, and supermarkets to sell live whole fish, and expects to provide eight to fifteen jobs along with fresh fish to many low-income communities. Biagi has spent the past few months creating partnerships with people interested in vending his fish. His market goal is to sell 100,000 pounds of live fish per year at $2.40 per pound. He is currently selling the fish for $2 a piece and has subsidized the start of his business with grants. He has received $125,000 in state grant money, $50,000 through The Urban Initiatives, and $20,000 from the non-profit Food for All project, which promotes alternative food production methods in low-income communities.

Biagi is excited about how news of AquaFarm has spread through word of mouth. Although many barriers must still be crossed for this project to reach its full potential, this great beginning can be used as a model for future urban aquaculture. As an educator, Biagi sees the visitors at Aquafarm as partners in this venture and goes out of his way to encourage participation from local church groups, youth groups, college classes, and interested individuals from the community. Visiting Aquafarm allows groups like these to learn about aquaculture, join in the excitement of this grassroots economic development project, and pick up some fresh fish for dinner.

Beth Ferguson is a senior at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, studying community development, urban sustainability, and ecological design. She discovered Bob Biagi's aquaculture project while working as an intern at Nuestras Raices (Our Roots), a community garden organization in Holyoke.

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