The corner of North 15th Street and Colcord Avenue has become a one-stop shop for turning sunlight into electricity, food waste into soil and fish feces into fresh produce that fine restaurants want to buy.
It carries the name Urban REAP, which is short for Urban Renewable Energy and Agriculture Project, and is yet another program Mission Waco has launched in a North Waco neighborhood that has evolved into a source of community pride.
About 75 Mission Waco volunteers, community leaders and students showed up Tuesday to celebrate the official opening of the REAP, which includes an aquaponics greenhouse, solar energy array, rainwater catchment and purification system, composting system and a training center for youngsters.
The operation is next to Jubilee Food Market, which opened in November to eliminate a food desert for residents living more than 2 miles from the nearest grocery store, an H-E-B on North 19th Street.
Mission Waco executive director Jimmy Dorrell served as master of ceremonies, tour guide and auctioneer Tuesday as bidding broke out on the first bag of soil that a $30,000 composting machine produced from table scraps.
“Now it’s getting fun,” Dorrell said, perspiration and a smile crossing his face in the late-morning heat as he repeated the rising numbers.
Debbie Vanous, whose name tag identified her as a McLennan County master gardener, won the 40-pound sack with a bid of $61. It carried a price of about $12, but Vanous said she gladly upped the ante to support a worthy cause, and joked her purchase was still “dirt cheap.”
Baylor University senior lecturer Larry Lehr and lab coordinator Doug Nesmith, who work in environmental science, donated their time and students to getting the composting initiative off the ground, Dorrell said.
“The machine can convert 100 to 150 pounds of food waste into 100 pounds of soil in 24 hours,” Lehr said during the tour. “The soil is so rich, you probably want to blend it with other soil.”
Bags will become available for purchase, Dorrell said. Mission Waco is asking the public to donate food waste and is making buckets available for the process. Lists of acceptable items have been posted at the site.
Dorrell and Jason Sears, executive director of the Green Mountain Energy Sun Club, used a 6-foot-tall replica of a light switch to symbolically activate 36 solar panels that comprise the centerpiece of an 11.5-kilowatt solar system. It will save Mission Waco $49,000 in energy costs over its lifetime, according to a press release and comments by Sears.
Glynn Barber, from Muncie, Indiana, traveled to Waco for Tuesday’s ceremonies and discussed the “aquaponics process on steroids” he invented to produce fresh fruits and vegetables using fish feces instead of soil. He calls it the Environmentally Controlled Sustainable Integrated Agricultural system, and it is featured at the Urban REAP.
The system serving Urban REAP features a 500-gallon tank filled with purified rainwater and 314 hybrid striped bass, whose waste serves as plant food. The aquaponic greenhouse, which was shipped in pieces from Canada and assembled in Waco, has been in use about two months and is producing radishes, tomatoes, Swiss chard, basil and Romaine lettuce.
The products are sold at Jubilee Food Market and Mission Waco’s World Cup Cafe, both at 15th Street and Colcord Avenue. The 135 Prime steakhouse on Hewitt Drive and the Baylor Club at McLane Stadium have expressed interest in acquiring the produce, Dorrell said.
Later, the system will produce 1,250 pounds of fish and crustaceans each year, the crawfish thriving in growing trays where they will eat the dead ends of plant roots and create nutrients by shedding their skins.
Ashley Stephens, 31, brought her 9-year-old son, Ajoni, to the ribbon-cutting ceremony and tour Tuesday. Stephens said her son loves to garden and found the aquaponics system and fish tank intriguing.
Stephens, a master gardener who runs a children’s gardening program in Lorena, said REAP will become an asset to Waco and efforts to teach youngsters the value of conservation and sustainability.
The rainwater capture system features a 3,000-gallon tank and can turn one inch of rainfall into 640 gallons of usable water.
With 33 inches of rain per year, the system can produce plenty of water to run the greenhouse’s aquaponic system, said Luke Snyder, with JerNan Septic and Rainwater Solutions, which designed the Urban REAP rainwater catchment.
“I think I can say with extreme confidence that if this system sees its use optimized, they won’t have to pump potable water in the future,” Snyder said.
Dorrell said Urban REAP carries a price tag of about $325,000, with $50,000 of that coming from an account established after the death of Jimmy and Janet Dorrell’s son, Seth, during a mission trip to Mexico.
Green Mountain Energy’s Sun Club gave $234,000 for the project.
Funds generated by the sale of soil, produce, fish and plants will cover the salaries of those overseeing the Urban REAP’s day-to-day operations.