Munster couple raise tilapia in basement fish farm

2010-10-17T00:00:00Z 2010-10-17T00:41:28Z Munster couple raise tilapia in basement fish farmBy Molly Woulfe (219) 852-4329, molly.woulfe@nwi.com nwitimes.com

First they brewed their own ale and wine.

Then they learned to make their own mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Canning tomatoes, eggplant and squash from their heirloom garden came next.

Yet Jotham Austin and Georgia Geis, angling for a greener lifestyle, dove even deeper into self-sustainability.

The Munster couple have established a fish farm in the basement of their Meadow Lane home. Their "crop" is tilapia, a high-protein freshwater fish, their farm, a 100-gallon Rubbermaid tub in a corner of the furnace room.

An electric pump keeps the water bubbling, air circulating, and the future filets in the swim.

Her husband, who goes by Joe, is the greener of the two, Geis said. He's also the aquaculturist.

"Joe gets an idea, and he can't stop it," she said.

An Arizona transplant, she gravitates to their garden "and harvesting all that food," Geis said, smiling.

Thanks to a compact worm farm -- a box housing red wiggles that munch table scraps -- the furnace room has just a mild, earthy odor. A whiff of fishmeal is the only clue that the mega-tank exists.

A fish farm is a low-maintenance source of food once it's up and running, Austin pointed out. In mid-April, he bought 50 small fry, "the size of the fingernail on your pinky." Today the tilapia are fishstick-sized.

Dinner will be served when the tilapia reach two pounds late this year. Austin will assume fileting duties, a rite which may call for "a talk" with son Max, 6.

When they first set up the farm, Max "wanted to buy fish aquarium toys for the tank," Austin said. "I said, 'Maybe we shouldn't get toys. It's not that kind of relationship.'"

His original plan was to build a integrated system, installing fluorescent lights and a hydroponic herb bed over the tank. The pump would send the nitrogen-rich wastewater circulating through plant roots, nourishing the garden.

But Nature had her own timetable. Their second son, Xavier, arrived two weeks early on May 3. So Austin just finished installing the garden bed, complete with basil, cilantro and arugula. "The fish and Xavier are almost the same age," he joked.

Cynics might assume Austin and Geis are ex-hippies yearning for their commune days. Both are well-educated professionals with a passion for sustainable living.

Austin, 35, is technical director of Advance Electron Microscopy at University of Chicago. He specializes in three-dimensional images of cells.

Geis, 41, is a former reporter for the Arizona Republic and co-author of an economics book. She is working on a master's in public affairs at the University of Indiana Northwest, with an emphasis on urban farming.

The couple, married seven years, met at Arizona State University when Austin was working on his doctorate in botany. They traded their Hyde Park condo for a Munster home a few years ago so they could put down roots.  Austin recently led a sustainability workshop in Miller Beach.

For Sandra Rodriguez, founder of the Miller Beach Farmers Market, the only known fish farm in Munster takes sustainability "to the next step."

The nation is starting to ride the crest of a green wave "and Joe's right on top of it," she said.

As a child, he spent his summer helping his grandfather tend an inner-city garden in Philadelphia, Austin said. There, steeped in the rhythms of nature and his elder's wisdom, he learned to respect the earth's natural resources, a tradition he wishes to pass on to his sons.

Max already "has a sense of where food comes from," he said. "He walks into a grocery store, sees cinnamon rolls, and says, 'Oh, my dad makes these.'"

There have been missteps. Some young tilapia went belly-up. Once they left the worm farm uncovered and went on vacation. "When we came back, we were greeted by fruit flies," Geis said.

While Austin's scientific background and hands-on approach have engineered his family's eco-friendly lifestyle, the couple are fans of shortcuts. Their home library includes titles such as "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day" by Zoe Francois and Jeff Hertzberg. They are avid fans, too, of the "Gorgeously Green" and "Lazy Person's Guide" series.

Besides fresh, organic food, Austin and Geis prize togetherness, passions which overlap in their kitchen. Weekends are relaxed. They may bake 10 loaves of bread at a time. Making pizza from scratch -- with their own tomato sauce and mozzarella -- is a ritual.

Once you fall into green routines, they become habits, Austin said. Family time is a good habit.

"On Saturday night,  instead of watching TV, we make homemade pizza and bread," he said. "I don't know what's going on with shows, but I have fresh bread."

 

 

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