Urban farm teaches kids how to run a business
BUFFALO, New York – A tropical fish farm was not quite what we expected when we arranged to meet some of the people running the Massachusetts Avenue Project, an urban farming group in this rusty Rust Belt city.
Walking in from a torrential rain into a greenhouse on a city street, we found ourselves in a warm enclosure full of running water and a tank full of fish in the floor. Jesse Meeder, who runs the fish farm, told us how it works.
A heated water tank sunk into the floor contains hundreds of tilapia – a tropical fish that needs warm water to survive. Water containing fish waste is pumped up to a large wooden case above, where watercress and spinach is growing. The fish waste fertilizes the soil before it passes back to the fish tank below.
Meeder told us that once the fish reach between a pound and a pound and a half in weight – this takes about nine months – they are then sold to local restaurants. The fish farm sells about 2,000 to 3,000 fish a year. It is the main revenue source for MAP, a nonprofit set up to educate local schoolchildren about farming and running a business.
The organization hires about 50 schoolchildren a year to work through the summer months, and keeps the top performers on for the winter months when there is less work, growing vegetables in outdoor plots where abandoned homes once stood, or tending to the fish farm. Altogether, the farm covers about half an acre.
“It is important to pay them, as it teaches them responsibility and about earning a wage,” said MAP executive director Diane Picard.
As well as farming, the schoolchildren have developed and marketed their own products that the farm sells to local retailers. So far the children have come up with a chilli sauce, a salsa and are working on a salad dressing.
“They learn how to write a marketing plan, how to write a business plan and how to come up with a strategy,” said Erin Sharkey. “These are important skills that they can apply out in the real world.”
Picard said that the project’s success is clearly demonstrated by what the children go on to do after working for MAP.
“One hundred percent of the high school seniors who have worked here have gone onto college,” she said. “In almost every case they were the first in their family to go beyond high school.”
The farm is located in the West Side of Buffalo, where around 47 percent of children graduate from high school.
Photos by Brian Snyder
Picard said that the farm hopes to expand its fish farm business as it is also reliant on government funding and private donations to keep going.
“We can probably only ever be 50 percent self-reliant,” she said. “But the organizations that sponsor us are clearly aware of the major benefits that this brings to children in this area.”