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Dade City man hopes to help cure world hunger with aquaponics

DADE CITY

At a school in the woods, an IT consultant from London is trying to learn how to raise fish and vegetables together so he can teach it to hungry Nigerians.

An organic farmer from Melbourne Beach wants to master this green fish farming to bring it to a charter school in Palm Bay. And a pair of women from Brooksville are learning so they can start their own business.

At the center of all these divergent dreams is Hans Geissler, a former plumber and catamaran builder who believes that his self-contained system of gardening and fishing — called aquaponics — can help solve world hunger.

He founded the 10-acre Morning Star Fishermen school, where you can learn everything from building your own backyard aquaponics system to starting a commercial operation in a Third World country.

"Why do I do it?" says Geissler, 68, an expressive man with large hands and a German accent. "Because I believe in being green and growing our own food and not depending on everyone else."

• • •

Inside the former clown fish hatchery where Geissler does his teaching, water gurgles and bubbles and spills into dozens of tanks. Tomato vines climb to the roofline over schools of white tilapia. Green mossy duckweed blankets some tanks, while tiny sprouts of arugula, celery, parsley, bush beans, cabbage, even carnations sprout out of rock wool or cocoa fiber in tiny containers floating in others.

The water in all of these tanks, about 80,000 gallons' worth, is all interconnected. The same water that nourishes the plants also nourishes the fish. Yes, fish waste helps these plants grow. And plant waste helps nourish the fish.

Geissler said he was on a mission trip building a church in Guatemala when he decided he wanted to do something to help starving people.

But his path to aquaponics had many detours.

He fought in the French Foreign Legion in Algeria, twice won state spearfishing championships in Florida, built and sold 2,000 catamarans and spent several years in prison for smuggling marijuana into the United States from Colombia.

"I did something wrong and I paid for it," he says. "Hopefully I will be remembered not for what I did bad but for what I did helping people."

Since he started Morning Star Fishermen in 1993, he has helped bring versions of this unique fish farming to Mayan Indians in Mexico, to an orphanage in Haiti and to a monastery of nuns in the Dominican Republic. He also is in the process of opening an aquaponics school in Nicaragua.

"It's an organic method of farming," says Geissler. "Our main focus is to help people help themselves, especially with the backyard system. People can do that in their garage, they can do it on rooftops."

Aquaponics isn't new, but it has recently gained a more fervent following among the blooming ranks of environmentalists, survivalists and those wanting to have more control over what they eat.

It is popular in Australia, where drought conditions make it practical, since it uses far less water than regular soil farming.

Here in the United States, it has only recently started to gain attention. There are probably 800 to 1,200 aquaponics systems in use in American homes and another 1,000 in school science classes, says Rebecca Nelson of Nelson and Pade Inc., which sells aquaponics systems and publishes Aquaponics Journal.

There are only a handful of commercial operations. Most people trying out aquaponics are just regular people like Thomas Fanizza, a part-time airline clerk and father of two from a suburb of Chicago. His family wants to eat organic but doesn't want to pay the steep prices. So he flew down to Florida and attended Morning Star Fishermen in January. He said it cost him about $500 to set up his 85-gallon system, which he installed in his dining room. He's growing two kinds of lettuce and basil and is waiting for his tilapia to arrive.

"Anybody can do this," says Fanizza, 47. "It's simple."

• • •

Jean Lacerte, 41, stood over a tank of tilapia at Morning Star, grabbing them one by one and placing them in a Styrofoam container for his trip back to Melbourne Beach.

After a week in one of Geissler's sessions, he was ready to start his own system at the organic farm he started in August after 25 years as a tile contractor. He also wants to start one at a green charter school that he supplies with organic vegetables.

Lacerte has become a zealous believer.

"When there is a lack of an ecosystem in areas, you can actually create one," Lacerte says as he heads to his car with his fish. "I think this will catch on like wildfire."

Geissler, who lives at the school and does not take a salary, says his nonprofit school is drawing more and more students like Lacerte who want to use aquaponics to provide food for others. Each year, about 100 to 200 students pay about $500 to take his weeklong classes.

There's the father and son telecommunication engineers who want to set up a large aquaponics system in Barbados. The Brooksville women who are in the process of launching Florida's first commercial aquaponics operation with two 30,000-gallon tanks at Geissler's school.

And Babatunde Oyegunsen, 49, an information technology consultant from England who is trying to honor his deceased sister's memory by helping farmers in Nigeria set up aquaponics systems.

"After her death from a brain tumor, I learned that she did a lot of charity work," he says. "And I wanted to continue that. And this idea came into my head about agriculture."

Oyegunsen said he already had an offer of land from someone in Nigeria to set up the process and was talking with fish farmers there who might switch to raising tilapia through aquaponics.

A few weeks after his January class, he traveled to Nigeria, met with local farmers and government officials and was helping a few farmers do just that.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Times reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640.

. Fast facts

Morning Star Fishermen Training and Research Center

The school, at 33336 Old Saint Joe Road in Dade City, offers courses that help students master the basic information and technologies necessary to raise tilapia and hydroponic plants. Prices vary, but a weeklong session is $500. For information, call (352) 523-2722 or visit morningstarfishermen.org.

Dade City man hopes to help cure world hunger with aquaponics 03/06/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 8, 2010 9:41am]
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