Just before Christmas, Margaret Samuels and I traveled to San Diego for the annual Refugee Agricultural Partnership Project conference. Now everyone who has had to travel for work conferences can admit that they often aren’t exactly psyched on going. I think that a solution to that problem could be that all work conferences should occur in sunny, gorgeous San Diego because we almost didn’t come home. I may be from the east coast South, but the west coast South is a whole ‘nother story. A place where the climate is always comfortable and the sun always shines, where papayas, pomegranates, jack fruit, bread fruit and bananas grow year round and cactuses of every shape and size adorn the beautiful gardens all over the city. Did I mention the ocean is just around the corner? Did I mention I had some amazing fish tacos, an incredible thai papaya salad and that a handmade chocolate shop was a half a block from our hotel?
Now this isn’t a travel blog so I’m going to stop raving about San Diego and give an overview of some of the amazing things we learned and saw at the conference. A good conference is both informative and inspiring and this year’s conference did the job right! The RAPP conference is a convergence of all of the Refugee Agricultural Projects across the nation and everyone meets up and shares techniques and notes and networks and I was honored to do a presentation on our project here in Chapel Hill.
The conference was hosted by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) which works in 40 countries and 22 cities in the U.S. to
provide support and aid to refugees. The IRC in San Diego supports the New Roots for Refugees Farm which is a project like ours that helps refugees learn to grow and sell vegetables in the U.S. We visited the City Heights farmers market and saw the project participants selling their veggies like pros. The farmer’s market was very different from the Carrboro or Durham farmer’s markets because it reflected the diverse immigrant and refugee population of the City Heights neighborhood in San Diego. Not to go on on and on about eating, but………. at the
farmer’s market I ate a delicious Salvadorian pupusa (corn tortilla stuffed with beans and cheese) as well as a bright red, salted and pickled, hard boiled duck egg which is a traditional way of preserving duck eggs in the Phillipines. There was also a mad rush of customers around a vendor who brought fresh sea creatures to buy and eat. It was a really fun farmer’s market!
We also toured the New Roots for Refugees farm and it was amazing to see all the different plots cultivated by refugees from all over the world. The techniques of growing and the myriad of fruits, flowers and veggies growing in each plot was such a diverse reflection of the histories and cultures of the farmers.
Another highlight was the IRC and New Roots for Refugees plant nursery and a tilapia aquaponics/aquaculture system all located downtown in City Heights. The tilapia aquaponics system was made famous by McArthur genius grant recipient Will Allen and the Growing Power urban farm in Milwaukee. Here’s how the system works: Tilapia fish are raised in large tanks inside a greenhouse. The nitrogen rich wastewater that the fish create is pumped through a filtration system of gravel and sometimes watercress which both work to break down the ammonia in the fish waste into nitrogen fertilizer. The
filtered nitrogen rich water is piped through the roots of plants also growing in the greenhouse. The plants further filter the water removing nitrogen so that the water is then safe to flow back into the fish tanks where it first came from. In the end you have tilapia that can be raised in an urban environment and plants and vegetables that are fertilized as a byproduct of the tilapia production. It’s a loop that requires very little extra input–the water is recycled and the fish waste used to nourish plants instead of “wasted” or disposed of. In conventional fish farming the high concentration of the byproduct waste can be a serious pollutant and in freshwater systems the amount of water needed is tremendous. Hence the beauty of the aquaponics/aquaculture system.