An Oak Park backyard full of fish and plants

Edible Garden Tour reveals much awesomeness out back

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By David Hammond

Last Saturday was the second annual Edible Garden Tour sponsored by The Sugar Beet Co-op, which officially launched last February.

As part of this tour around the Village, we visited a number of fascinating examples of urban farming, and I'm going to cover several over the next few weeks. The first place we stopped on this year's tour was a real estate office.

As mentioned last week, Frank DiFebo owns and operates Classic Properties, a real estate brokerage at 1009-11 Madison. From outside on Madison Street, it looks like a regular office, which is just what it is; in back, DiFebo has tanks of fish that feed plants that feed fish that ultimately feed DiFebo.

When the real estate market crashed in 2008, DiFebo had some time on his hands, so he started tinkering with aquaponics, a closed loop system of agriculture that interconnects aquaculture (raising fish) with hydroponics (raising plants with basically just water).

Tilapia are incredibly efficient livestock – they produce one-half pound of protein for every pound of feed eaten. Compare that to beef cattle that need about 58 pounds of feed to produce a pound of meat. The tilapia eat water hyacinths that are, in this closed loop system, fed with nutrient-rich water from the tilapia tank. The fish also eat the algae off the sides of the tank, and DiFebo supplements this diet with pelletized fish food (so the system isn't completely "closed," but that's the goal).

"Tilapia are African chichlids, from the Nile," DiFebo explained. "You know the story of the multiplying of the fish and loaves? Those fish were tilapia."

I have not confirmed this story with Biblical scholars, but until told otherwise, it's too good not to believe. And there's no doubt: tilapia are very good at increasing in size.

The water from the tilapia is also sprinkled over plants, like basil and watercress, that DiFebo eats.

It's a rather remarkable system that "was built," DiFebo told us, "based on my own goofy engineering. I really don't know what I'm doing."

Still, it seems to work quite well: the plants, fish and DiFebo all appeared healthy.

Inside his office, DiFebo keeps a tank of fry that are growing to a size where they can be transferred to the larger tanks. Tilapia are vegetarian, so young fish are in no danger of being eaten by bigger fish.  Of course, many of these fish will undoubtedly be eaten by DiFebo, who has been running his aquaponics operation for two years now. "At the end of last year," he said, "we had some fish tacos. They were pretty good."

I asked DiFebo if he had ever calculated how much it actually cost to produce, say, a pound of fish and vegetables. He hadn't done the calculation because the actual cost doesn't really seem to matter. Keeping a backyard aquaponics system is just a cool thing to do, and like most hobbies, the return on investment is hardly relevant.

Having an event like Edible Gardens, however, publicizes this and other techniques for producing food on one's own, and that is a very worthwhile endeavor. In the weeks to come, I'll highlight some other ways that local folks have used their backyard spaces to experiment with new ways of growing their own food.

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David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 30th, 2013 8:57 PM

Invasive Species, please understand, the water hyacinth in this instance is in an alley off Madison in Oak Park. There doesn't seem to be much chance that it's going to escape and invade another ecosystem (like Lake Michigan). And the very fact that this is a tough species is good because it can survive in what is, admittedly, an unnatural environment. Most importantly, the tilapia like it. The analogy with Asian Carp is faulty because, again, this plant is not being "introduced" to any ecosystem; it is part of a closed loop, human-made ecosystem. Can the water hyacinths escape like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park? -- I guess, but that possibility seems rather slight and I'm not going to let it diminish the awesomeness of what DiFebo is trying to do. If you are so inclined, by all means, have at it.

Invasive Species  

Posted: July 30th, 2013 10:36 AM

Water hyacinth is an especially pernicious invasive species notorious for taking over and profoundly changing ecosystems througout the world when introduced by well-intentioned or ignorant humans. Ironically, control measures, which are only partially successful, include dousing effected bodies of water with herbicide or introducing yet more exotic species. The introduction of Asian Carp in the US was someone's bright idea for sustainable aquaculture too.

Jim Coughlin from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 29th, 2013 10:28 PM

Food for thought.

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