Cheyney plunges into aquaculture

The Fish Site
by The Fish Site
12 April 2007, at 1:00am

US - "This is the humidor," Michael Derro says with a grin, as he cracks open a door in the back corner of the greenhouse.

The leaders of the program are Steven Hughes (left), director of Cheyney's Aquaculture Research and Education Center, and Michael Derro, head of Herban Farms.

He dives right into the walk-in closet, which houses metal racks filled with trays of brown cube-shaped sponges. Little specks of green poke out of each sponge; they're small basil plants emerging from soilless medium.

It is hot in the humidor. Really, really hot. The weather at Cheyney University is warm for late March, approaching the 70s and sunny, but the humidor is stifling, 90 degrees with the humidity cranked up to 90 percent. What is unbearable for humans, with the possible exception of Derro, is great for basil, though.

Derro is giving a wall-to-wall tour of his greenhouse, a 12,000-square-foot glass building that occupies one of the back corners of Cheyney's campus. The $800,000 greenhouse, funded entirely by Derro, aquaponically grows basil and raises a fish called tilapia in a symbiotic relationship that, in a way, mirrors the partnership between Derro's company, Herban Farms, and Cheyney.

Derro met Steven Hughes, director of Cheyney's Aquaculture Research and Education Center, three years ago; they both were bidding on a now-defunct fish farm in Philadelphia.

Neither man ended up buying the farm (so to speak), but they established a connection, and Derro approached Hughes with an idea. With 35 years of experience in the fresh herb market, Derro was looking to start his own business, and a partnership with a university could cut costs.

Hughes was intrigued. Three years later, the small staff of Herban Farms is hard at work seven days a week in its little corner of Cheyney, pumping out as much fresh basil as it can to sell in local markets.

Herbs grown aquaponically are raised in water. Derro's basil grows out of food-grade Styrofoam, floating on top of four 146-foot-long rectangular tanks. After five days in the humidor, the buds are floated in the very back end of the tanks, and are moved toward the front as they grow.

Without the benefit of soil, the water must be infused with nutrients to ensure crop health. That job falls squarely on the 6,000 or so tilapia that share the 36,000-gallon tanks with the basil.

A hardy tropical fish - and quite tasty when baked in a lime sauce - the tilapia are the property of the university.