UDI testing fishy new waters

jwise@newsobserver.comMarch 18, 2014 

— Among other ventures in its 44 years, UDI Community Development Corp. has loaned money to small businesses, built affordable housing and developed a 91-acre industrial park.

Now it’s going into urban agriculture.

The Durham nonprofit plans to turn about six acres on Cornwallis Road into a year-round farm, producing fruit, vegetables and fish.

“UDI ... will create an exciting urban farming opportunity for Durham,” said attorney Patrick Byker. “(It) will enhance Durham’s leadership position as the food Mecca of the South.”

Baker was representing UDI during a rezoning and land-use hearing at the Durham Planning Commission last week. Some commissioners were just as enthusiastic when they heard the plans.

“I just love this project,” said Commissioner Melvin Whitley.

“This is something that should become part of our thinking: how do we feed people?” said Commissioner Charlie Gibbs.

Kevin Hamak, a landscape architect whom Gibbs described as “our pioneer” in urban agriculture, said plans are to have about 14 greenhouses, some “traditional gardening” with covered beds to extend the growing seasons, trees and bushes for fruit – and fish, as both product and helpmate in an “aquaponics” operation.

Hamak described aquaponics as growing fish and vegetables in a recirculating greenhouse system.

In their waste, fish put nutrients in the water, he said. That water is circulated through plant beds where the plants take up nitrogen from the fish water before the water goes back into the fish tank.

“Basically, the plants provide the filtering system,” he said. The plan is to start aquaponics in just a few of the greenhouses, and expand if the systems are a success.

“The benefit of that is you actually get several times the yield on your vegetables because you're giving them a constant intake of nutrients,” Hamak said. He hopes to have the farm in production in early 2015.

“I'm just thinking about all the times I've been cleaning my fish tank and I could have been using the water to grow fruit and vegetables,” Whitley said. “This is a wonderful idea.”

Gibbs said he has seen aquaponics operations in other places.

“I've seen it of all places in New York City,” Gibbs said. “In New York City they have rooftop farms that could feed the inhabitants of a whole entire building.

“There are people that would love to use it downtown,” he said.

The rezoning and land-use requests, necessary to allow agriculture on the property, won Planning Commission endorsement 12-1, with formal approval to come from the City Council later.

Commissioner David Harris was the only dissenting voice, saying he was concerned about “adverse conditions” the rezoning could allow.

“They could have hogs out there,” Harris said.

No one else was concerned at that prospect.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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