If you give a man a fishDade City man combines aquaculture and agriculture to fight hunger
By Sarah Whitman
Senior Staff Writer
When Hans Geissler founded Morning Star Fishermen in Dade City, he had a vision to help alleviate third-world hunger using aquaponics, a form of sustainable fish and vegetable farming.
A decade later, his vision is closer to home.
“Now, our biggest project is helping people in the United States,” Geissler said. “Because of the economy and changes in food production more people here want to learn how to be self-sustaining. Aquaponics is the future.”
Aquaponics is a process where waste water from fish is used to grow plants. The plants purify the water so it can be recycled. No soil is needed and synthetic fertilizers aren’t used.
Morning Star is an aquaponics training and research center located on 10 acres off Old Saint Joe Road. The nonprofit has more than 110,000 galloons of tank space and a solar-heated green house where tilapia are bred to feed a variety of plant species.
Morning Star’s main focus is education. Students come to learn how to create sustainable farming systems of their own. There are dormitories on site where people can live and study for up to three months. Morning Star offers courses lasting one day to 12 weeks.
“You know the parable, if you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for one day but if you teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for his whole life,” Geissler said. “We offer hands-on learning, which is the best way to learn, then the students can take what they have learned back to their home or community and create their own aquaponics system.”
A plumber by trade, Geissler taught himself to hand craft sailboats and is the owner of G-Cat Multihulls LLC, a successful company specializing in catamaran boats. He runs Morning Star on a strictly volunteer basis and has never taken a salary. He and wife, Sigrid, live on the property.
Geissler was inspired to study aquaculture on a mission trip to Guatemala 20 years ago.
“I saw the poverty in Guatemala and I had this inner voice speak to me that I needed to do something to help humanity,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about aquaponics. I started with a 10-gallon tank and went from there. I still don’t know everything. I’m always learning.”
Morning Star has helped bring aquaponics to 25 countries including Haiti, Nicaragua, Jamaica and Nigeria.
In recent months, the training center has attracted more students from the Tampa Bay area. Most are looking to set up backyard aquaponic systems for personal food supply.
“For our next four-week class all the students are from this area,” said Barbara Arthur, Morning Star executive director. “They’ll all be commuting so no one is staying in the dorms. It’s unbelievable how many people locally are interested now.”
Arthur began volunteering at Morning Star three years ago. She became executive director in September and moved into a house next door to the Geisslers. She works for room and board, and fresh veggies.
She is trying what she calls the 100-mile diet.
“It’s where you don’t eat anything that was grown outside of a 100-mile radius,” she said. “Hans and I are both trying it.”
Geissler considers homegrown food to be a step above fine dining. He loves the tilapia bred at Morning Star and was devastated when 2,000 fish were lost in the winter freeze. Busch Gardens recently donated 1,000 tilapia to help replenish the facility.
“Tilapia is a wonderful fish to breed because it tastes great and it is a great source of protein,” Geissler said. “When students come, we give them tilapia to get their own systems started. With aquaponics, a single family or a community of people can get their vegetables and their protein.”
Geissler believes organic farming will continue to grow in popularity.
“There are so many people without jobs and this is really a time to go back to basics,” he said. “If everyone would just grow something in their backyard, it would have a huge impact.”
Will McDonald, of Weeki Wachee, agrees. He heard about Morning Star from a friend and visited the farm March 30 to learn more.
“I’m interested in the future of green business,” McDonald said. “The food markets are changing. I want to know what opportunities there are. ”
Geissler is not interested in making his farm a business. Most of the food farmed at Morning Star is given away. Still, Geissler sees the potential for others to make a living with aquaponics.
“In the future, I believe it is going to be one of the main ways of growing food,” Geissler said. “The earth is 30 percent land and 70 percent water, and the population keeps going up and up.”
Morning Star needs volunteers to help with farming, volunteer coordinating, grant writing, maintenance, electrical and plumbing work, and in other areas.
Registration is open for a one-day training class May 8.
For information, visit www.morningstarfishermen.org.