Havilah Gardens Micro Farm is all about systems. A 20 plus year tech sector small business owner, farmer David Wickboldt solves problems and creates elegant systems for a living whether he’s on the farm or at a client’s property. His fields are filled with edible perennials and high-value annuals timed to ripen in waves that match the available labor—largely his family and neighborhood kids. Nearly half of the farm is taken up with long white hoop houses curiously closed despite the mid summer heat.
David has been working with systems for a long time and knows that a good system solves several problems.
Bellflower, Illinois (the hometown of Havilah Gardens) doesn’t allow chickens. City ordinances are available in print form only, via a single copy located at the Bellflower Community Library, open a single day a week. That didn’t stop David from meticulously scanning every page so he could make his own copy to pour over until he found the city did not have any regulation banning the cultivation of fish, nor any real mechanism to prevent David from adding fish to his farm.
Anyone who has kept fish will tell you they poop and keeping fish is all about balancing a system of nitrates and nitrites. In your pet aquarium, that means regular water changes swapping out dirty water for fresh new water. At Havilah, that dirty fish water is filtered out to a tank of hungry beneficial microbes who convert the raw fish poop into a rich, nutrient dense liquid fertilizer in a process pretty similar to soil compost piles. There is even evidence to show that the microbe diversity in system’s like Havilah’s is more diverse than similar farm’s soil diversity.
Havilah’s fish, microbe and plant system is called aquaponics—a farming system that involves growing plants without soil in a water-based solution (hydroponics) and fish cultivation (aquaculture).
After the microbes convert the fish poop into plant-friendly nutrients, David is able to control the mixture of water to nutrient solution that flows through the last part of his circular system—the plant grow-beds. These resemble raised gardens with water for soil. Plants grow in floating styrofoam-like sheets of individual cups with their roots suspended directly in the water beneath. The grow beds sit low inside insulated greenhouses—converted hoop houses lined with bubble wrap layered between UV resistant plastic. The water slowly moves across the beds and is eventually cycled back, now cleaned, to begin the process in the fish tanks once more.
Basically, the farmer feeds the fish, the fish feed beneficial microbes, the microbes feed the plants, the plants feed the farmer (and his community).
Havilah’s systems allow David to raise freshwater fish like tilapia, nutrient-dense greens, high-value annual crops and reliable perennial crops—all while owning a full-time successful small business. David even hopes to soon add sustainable local marine shrimp to his little farm, almost as far away from the ocean as it is possible to get within the continental United States. There are systems like Havilah Garden’s across the country, each using similar principles adapted in individual ways to solve diverse problems. There are a lot of big problems facing our world and maybe a solution starts with small, sustainable systems closer to home.
Rural Routes is a new blog centered on exploring the world of Illinois Specialty Crop growers by Kelly Lay – Local Foods Program Manager for The Land Connection
Funding provided in whole or in part by the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s Illinois Specialty Crop Block Grant program.