Jedediah Foster believes God has been calling him to feed the people.
Other 23-year-old Christians might interpret that as a call to preach. But Jedediah has come to take the message a bit more literally.
At Liquid Church on Fort Wayne’s south side, at a site bordering areas officially designated as a food desert because of residents’ limited access to fresh and healthy food, Jedediah has become a farmer.
Instead of becoming a fisher of men, as Jesus predicted his disciples would do, Jedediah has become a raiser of fish – and a grower of plants destined for a 2-acre garden on church grounds known as Liquid Farms.
For the past two years, Jedediah has raised about 2,000 tilapia in tanks inside the church building. And, in an experiment with an emerging farming technique known as aquaponics, he’s using only water, some recycled from the fish tanks, to grow vegetables and herbs.
So Liquid Farms really does grow food in liquid, says Liquid Farms manager Lisa Foster, who is wife of the church’s pastor, Tom Foster, and Jedediah’s mother.
When he began feeling the calling, Jedediah says, he had no experience in farming or raising fish, although he confesses liking fish from the time he was a kid.
It became a kind of a mission. I really felt it was kind of what God called me to do, he says. It’s a really big idea, but he’s also given me every step of the way. We just walked through opened doors.
First, Jedediah says, someone who showed up at a church service ended up donating 18 tilapia and enough food for a year. Then, when he needed to learn more, he was put in touch with people in Michigan who built fish farm components.
They gave him a book by two of the world’s top experts on aquaponics. He eventually traveled to Florida to study under them.
I did a massive amount of research to find out how to do this, he says. There isn’t a video on YouTube that shows you how to put an aquaculture system in your church basement made out of salvaged parts from your backyard.
In typical aquaculture, or fish farming, waste products from the fish accumulate in the water until it becomes toxic, Jedediah explains.
But in an aquaponic system, water from the fish tanks is continually fed to nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which break down the waste into nitrates and nitrites, which the plants use as nutrients. The cleaned water is then recirculated to the fish.
If you design a system with the correct ratios, and there are a lot of ratios here, there’s no waste discharge. Everything that comes out of the system is a valuable food product, says Jedediah, who built most of the system’s components himself.
That’s the exciting thing about aquaponics. It’s very low-impact on the environment.
It started out as a kind of esoteric thing, but now it’s expanding exponentially.
At present, the church has two growing areas – a small one with about 200 fish in aquariums in a converted classroom, and one in the back of the church gymnasium.
In the first, scores of trays of herb and vegetable starts, from marjoram and parsley to peppers and tomatoes, share space on shelves under fluorescent-tube lights growing hydroponically, or in regular water not taken from the fish tanks.
That technique is reserved for the second space, where there are four 330-gallon fish tanks, with a wooden stairway leading to a balcony that has more plant racks. The racks now hold Romaine lettuce and basil fed with fish water.
The hydroponic plants will go to hoop houses on the church property and/or be transplanted into the ground. The aquaponic plants will mature right where they started, Lisa Foster says.
For the first time this year, Liquid Farms expects to start 1,000 plants in water from the fish tanks. Liquid Farms also will grow about 5,000 to 7,000 more plants, including root crops such as carrots, beets and potatoes not suitable for aquaponic growing, she says.
The church now cultivates two acres of the 29.2-acre plot on which it sits. The land had been leased and conventionally farmed with corn and soybeans for decades, but Liquid Farms grows its produce organically, she says.
Last year, produce went to congregation members, people who bought shares of its Community Sponsored Agriculture program and those who bought items at a farm stand on the property. Some produce was donated to an area food bank.
Those activities will continue this year and expand with appearances at a locally owned grocery and a farmers market.
Besides three hoop houses, the operation has access to a refrigerated truck for temporary storage, donated farm equipment and an irrigation system.
Labor is volunteer, with about a dozen regular helpers. Some labor is provided through an internship arrangement with The Crossing, an alternative high school in Fort Wayne operated by Youth for Christ.
Plans this year are to offer 70 varieties of produce and herbs. Some of the farm’s seedlings were sold in Fort Wayne this month though the 3 Rivers Co-op Natural Foods & Deli’s annual plant sale.
Liquid Farms is set up as a mission under the nonprofit status of Liquid Church, which is an independent, nondenominational congregation in the Protestant charismatic tradition and has about 180 weekly attendees, Lisa Foster says.
The name came from the Christian association of water and baptism as well as a desire for the church’s influence to spread beyond its four walls out into the community and the world, she says.
Jedediah Foster says he does not sell fish for food yet, although that is a goal, as is providing hatchlings for other aquaponic systems.
He also would like to scale up and continue improving the system – including building a glass-walled atrium off the second floor of the church to get more natural light for plants and installing solar panels to cut down on the need for electricity.
He believes churches can play a role in helping people have greater access to fresh, sustainable locally grown food, and he thinks similar systems can be set up in developing nations in the mission field.
Here (in the United States), there’s, more people are going back to local food, and knowing where their food comes from, Jedediah says. There, it’s a matter of life and death.
But either way, he adds: This is a way to get back to food the way God intended it.