The Fish Taco Farm: An experiment in urban aquaponics

April 15, 2010

story by Heather Smith
diagram by Materials & Applications
This article originally appeared in 
Meatpaper Issue Eleven.

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WHAT DOES IT MEAN to try and grow your own fish tacos in an outdoor exhibition space? It means a new kind of farming: one based on experimentation instead of economic viability. It means functionality can be compromised for the sake of concept. It means success and failure can coexist without detriment. Which is good, because you can expect a lot of failure.

The experiment was carried out by Materials & Applications (M&A), a nonprofit space in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. M&A focuses on the intersection of art and landscape. One founder, Jenna Didier, designs fountains. The other, Oliver Hess, works in something that is described on their website as  “visualization and mechanization.”

A group of volunteers spent two months developing a Vietnamese aquaculture-style rainwater-fed fish and vegetable farm. They used basic, off-the-shelf components and repurposed materials that were discovered in and around the courtyard. The aim was to create a classic aquaponic system: one in which the fish waste provides nutrient-rich water for the plants, and the plants in return provide clean, filtered water for the fish. A principal goal was to experiment until arriving at a system that could be implemented in any neighborhood at any economic level, something that would permit individuals and organizations to better sustain their own nutritional needs, while creating habitat for native birds, butterflies, and dragonflies. The project was called “Back to Basics.”

There were problems right away. The fish pond leaked. “Leaking” turned out to be a vital component of the Vietnamese system — an additional water filtration mechanism. But Vietnam has enough rainwater to replenish such a system, and Los Angeles doesn’t, so the pool needed to be sealed. Attempts to purchase large quantities of live tilapia sparked suspicion on the part of a local tilapia farmer that the artists were actually planning to start a competing farm, so he would only sell them 40 fish, rather than the 400 that they asked for. The taco vegetables — lettuce, onions, peppers, and tomatoes — never grew especially well. But wildlife was attracted to the habitat, so much so that a dome made of steamed bamboo was added to the top of the pond to keep raccoons and neighborhood cats from eating all of the tilapia.

The culmination of this experiment in hyper-local taco farming occurred during a gallery night in Silver Lake. M&A planned a taco party, and invited the public to attend and witness the fish and vegetable harvest. At the time of the event, only two tilapia had grown to a sufficient size to be used in tacos, so 58 pounds of additional adult tilapia were purchased from the same tilapia farmer who had been worried about the possibility of a competing business. Witnessing the act of catching and killing a fish for dinner was, surprisingly, horrifying to many attendees. They had come for art, and for tacos, but were not expecting to be confronted with the full story of how a fish taco is made. “These were not hipsters who believed in what we were doing,” said Hess. “These were gallery rats. The audience was totally enraptured by how horrified it was.”

At the end of the party, the surviving tilapia were placed into an aquarium inside a conference room, where they continue to live on, decoratively.

What was M&A left with? Among the lessons: Building a food system and its processes firsthand sheds new light on eating and just how deeply strange it is. No matter how much you design something, there is an infinitude of little surprises. And finally: Tilapia make surprisingly good pets.

HEATHER SMITH lives in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Every night, she goes out to scavenge coins that tourists have thrown in the fountain. She is currently working on a book about insects, humans, and the various misunderstandings that arise between them.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Eleven.

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