Route to Recovery

A trip through the epicenters of the recession

Urban farm teaches kids how to run a business

November 23, 2009


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

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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.”


What a wonderful program. This type of thing should be replicated in every high school nationally.

Posted by BB | Report as abusive

You have exposed some great groups and projects in your series. Buffalo is certainly a struggling city carrying the triple burden of a poorly managed stat, concentrated poverty, and the massive decline in American manufacturing.

However, You do your story and this city a disservice by perpetuating myths of Buffalo as a entirely devastated rustbelt wasteland. Why was Buffalo even chosen for this story? Buffalo can certainly NOT be described as being at the “Epicenter of the American Recession” Its unemployment rate has been and remains to be below the national average. Its housing prices continue to rise. Did you pick buffalo because its is a convenient poster child of industrial decline? You don’t even include cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, the very cities which caused the recession!

Yes Buffalo has serious problems but you skipped right over the beautiful vibrant neighborhoods that continue to thrive in Buffalo. Was that inconvenient to your predetermined story line? I suggest you go back as try again give us some more fully rounded reporting.


Are you kidding? Buffalo is widely reported as having the third highest poverty rate of any American city, right behind Detroit! Nightly local TV news show how deep the city’s social problems are as reflected in violent crime, unemployment and drug abuse. Buffalo’s in big trouble. A place where young people wanting a career move away from, not move to.

An international cycling tour of the city I took in August gave me a first hand take on just how appalling this city’s problems really are! The abandoned industrial “brown lands”, rusting vacated factories, a manufacturing base in long decline and delipidated housing that I saw didn’t begin with this recession, but do reflect wide spread economic distress and poverty. The current downturn of course has made these problems even worse.

Any “beautiful vibrant neigborhood” in Buffalo is an oddity, not the rule. Once described as the “Queen City” of the Great Lakes I did see evidence of “old money” in a few upper middle class neighborhoods. But the city’s overwhelmingly obvious plight needs all the attention it can get.

Denial of Buffalo’s decay and precarious economic position isn’t moving forward!

Posted by Mark | Report as abusive

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