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FISH TANK CONCEPT HELPS FEED FLOCKS, FAR AND NEAR

Tommytown's needy farmworkers benefit from aquaponics.

Fermin Cardenas throws a palmful of brown pellets into the murky green water in the 600-gallon tank behind Farmworkers Self Help Inc. A figure snakes to the surface and there's a splashing sound as the tilapia snatches a pellet. Its eyes bulge for a second at the surface before it disappears back into the dark water.

A pump moves water from the tank into a small bin. From there, the water flows through a green hose up to PVC pipes on the other side of the tank. Basil plants poke out of the pipes - they filter and thrive on the fish waste. Clear water runs back into the tank.

It's called aquaponics. The fish make waste. The plants use the waste for food. When the fish grow into delicious 2-pound fillets, they're eaten - with a side of aquaponic-grown vegetables.

Cardenas is the caretaker of this tank. He will train others at the Farmworkers center on how to build and maintain these self-sustaining aquaponic setups. He likes the fish fried. His wife likes to put them in soup.

In a few weeks the tank will be filled with more than 100 fish, enough to feed a person for months, or until he or she grows sick of tilapia.

Margarita Romo runs Farmworkers Self Help. Her organization helps the 15,000 farmworkers in Dade City get legal advice, child care and medical attention.

She leads mission projects and makes frequent trips to Tallahassee on the behalf of Florida farmworkers.

In 2006, Hans Geissler approached Romo. He is the founder of Morning Star Fishermen, a nonprofit on a mission to fight world hunger with aquaponics.

Romo had heard of Geissler's work building these aquaponic setups in poor areas of Haiti and Guatemala.

"I suppose he started to look inward," Romo says of Geissler. "He realized we have an impoverished community here in Tommytown."

The tank is the first one Morning Star Fishermen set up in the U.S. Fermin Cardenas, 40, is the first Morning Star Fishermen-trained caretaker in the U.S.

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For Morning Star, it all began when founder, Hans Geissler, took a mission trip to Guatemala in 1993. He took a break from work to spear fish in a river flowing to the Pacific Ocean.

He heard a voice.

"The Lord said, 'Remember where you came from,' " Geissler, 66, said in a rich German accent. "When I was little, I remember hunger."

He was one of 10 children living in a small town outside of Frankfurt.

Germany's infrastructure was destroyed after World War II and food was scarce.

"I know what hunger means. I don't have to read a book," Geissler said. "That's the reason I have so much compassion for people in Third World countries."

After the message came, he turned to his Bible, specifically the 21st chapter of John.

"It's about Jesus. It's about fish. It's about feeding the flock," Geissler said.

He researched aquaponics on the Internet and took a few classes on breeding tilapia. Later that year, he boarded a plane to Mexico with three 2-liter bottles filled with more than a hundred tilapia fry. The first official Morning Star aquaponic tank still stands behind a pastor's house in the Yucatan peninsula.

Since 1993, Geissler and a small staff have built more than 100 tanks throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. In Haiti alone, Geissler said that one of the tanks Morning Star Fishermen set up feeds thousands of children each month.

"It feels good," Heissler said.

The nonprofit has helped people across the globe. And now for the first time, Geissler and his staff are helping their neighbors.

"A lot of people say 'What are you doing over here, you're always going overseas?' " Geissler said. "I drive through Tommytown every day going to work. One day I heard an inner voice say 'Do something for the community there.' "

A grant from the Harry Chapin Foundation, an organization dedicated to fighting world hunger, paid for the tank at Farmworkers Self Help.

The setup cost about $5,000. They might have to replace the pump once or twice, but other than that Morning Star Fishermen says the setup should last for 70 or more years.

Romo, the Farmworkers director, is grateful for the tank and what it could do for the hungry people in the area. Geissler wants to build more tanks in her organization's back yard, a tilapia hatchery too.

But she's also grateful to Cardenas.

"Fermin Cardenas is the reason this tank is here," she said. "If we hadn't had him say 'I commit myself to this,' we couldn't have had this project."

As Morning Star Fishermen worked to secure the grant money, Cardenas attended training at their center in Dade City on Saturday mornings.

He was one of a dozen from Farmworkers who took the class. He was the only one with a car. He was the only one who stuck it out.

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Back at the Farmworkers center, Cardenas throws another handful of pellets into the water and again there's slapping sounds as the fish feed.

He just got done with his job as a handyman at Lake Jovita. He's wearing khaki pants and a blue shirt emblazoned with his employer's logo. He comes by every day after work to take care of the tank.

For Cardenas, it's sort of like being back home in Mapimi Durango, Mexico.

There everyone has animals -- goats, chickens, donkeys. Cardenas lives in the Dade City limits now. He only has two dogs.

It feels good to take care of something wilder than the dogs, he says.

Helen Anne Travis can be reaches at (352) 521-6518 or htravis@sptimes.com.

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