GARY | Ernest Rando reached into the above-ground pool with a small net and pulled out one of 30 tilapia, which were swimming with 300 bluegill.

Tilapia is not only the fastest growing meat product in this country, Rando said, but also is the fertilizer source for an aquaponic farming operation that offers an efficient and environmentally sound option for meeting local food needs.

The operation, which Rando and others intend to use for education as much as a food source, has been running since March in a small greenhouse at Matthew's Nursery north of Ridge Road on Chase Street in Gary. It is producing 1,000 fish and up to 4,000 heads of lettuce or other food plants each month, Rando said.

Merrillville resident Earl Ward created this particular operation. He said it grew from a hydroponics system he built nearly seven years ago to make the most of a narrow strip of land outside his home.

He switched to aquaponics because it is less expensive and more environmentally sound to fertilize the plants using fish rather than chemicals.

The system works by draining water from a fish pool through filters that remove solid matter and ammonia, Rando said. The remaining nitrate-rich water then flows by gravity into two lower beds, where it is circulated under plants suspended on floating boards and cleaned before being pumped back to the fish.

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"To me, it's the way of the future," said Ward, who also runs a much larger commercial operation in Chenoa, Ill. "I want to show other people it can be done."

Ward said aquaponics also offers an efficient way of growing jobs, particularly in troubled urban areas such as Gary that are full of abandoned industrial sites.

"With aquaponics, you don't need to clean up land," Ward said, "you go on top of it."

Rando said aquaponics can produce more energy than it uses, produce food that exceeds organic standards and is so efficient it produces one pound of fish and seven pounds of vegetables for every 1½ pounds of fish food.

Aquaponic produce is being sold to a few restaurants in Chesterton and Valparaiso, and Rando will sell plants at area farm markets in the spring.

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