HOW THE PASSION OF ONE ARCHITECT FUELS SUSTAINABLE FARMING.
Words by Christiana Roussel
Photos by Leah Overstreet
his is one of the first questions Peachtree City, Georgia, architect Jefferson Browne asks anyone who calls on him. In his own way, he is asking the person in front of him,
What does this particular project mean to you? How much do you believe not only in what you are doing but in what you are asking me to commit to as well? Whether it is a salesperson asking for the order or a co-worker seeking input, he genuinely wants to know: what is your level of passion here?
Jefferson’s personal level of passion is immediately apparent when you visit him at his firm’s office just south of Atlanta and see that Jefferson Browne Architects is also home to Alō Farms, an endeavor he began about 10 years ago. The seed for this idea was planted while Jefferson was attending a graduate school of design program at Harvard University. There, he and his classmates were challenged with developing solutions to dying inner cities and food insecurity. Later, on a medical missions trip to Haiti, he felt drawn to finding real solutions for communities without proper nutrition. He asked himself,How can I create something sustainable? Something impactful in my own community? Something that might grow to make a larger impact on the world? With these questions, a heart for service, and a desire to engage, Alō Farms was born.
A 15,000-square-foot greenhouse and a 1,000-square-foot fish farm are situated on-site at Jefferson Browne Architects, where he and a three-person full-time staff use a closed-loop system to produce 320 heads of lettuce, 30 pounds of tilapia, two pounds of arugula, and half a pound of kale, each week. Those numbers alone are staggering but pale in comparison to the impact Jefferson and his operation are having on the lives of his community, both in Peachtree City and beyond.
Some Alō Farms customers travel more than two hours each week to purchase produce and fish that are free of pesticides, herbicides, and other toxic chemicals. The tilapia, which can be raised in just nine months, are grown without any growth hor
mones or antibiotics, which is a powerful statement indeed. “We have had parents of children with autism who travel to buy from us. These are parents who have cried when they realize the quality of produce we are offering that they feel has real health benefits for their families.” He recounts another story of a man who’d recently had a liver transplant and was in need of lowering toxicity in his diet. This man asked Jefferson and his team to please grow some red cabbage. “We are constantly learning from the community what they want and need, and we try to meet those needs,” he says. They grew that red cabbage and his customer came back with glowing health reports.
These stories flow freely from everyone associated with Alō Farms, including farm manager Meredith Ferguson, who gives an excellent overview of the closed-loop aquaponics system they utilize. Harvest days are all-hands-on-deck, but the rewards more than make up for the rigors of the work and the long hours required. Greeting customers who drive from as far away as Stone Mountain and Decatur each Saturday is almost gratification in and of itself. And if you happen to come by midweek to pick up basil, butter lettuce, beets, or Swiss chard, there is an honor box outside. Jefferson reports that they have never come up short with this system. Not even once.
What about that name, Alō Farms? Jefferson says he feels God called him to build this farm, and his wife jokingly refers to it as his version of Noah’s ark. As he was journaling in a Bible study, he came upon the Greek word Alō, which means to nourish, to sustain, and to develop. His vision could not have been clearer. “I get excited every single time someone walks in our door, knowing I am on this mission to nourish, develop, and sustain this community.”
Currently working on nine new system designs, he hopes to rollout some version of Alō Farms in communities all over the world. By employing this system in areas where water supplies are greatly diminished, such as Mozambique and India, and nutrition is of paramount importance, he aims to impact lives across the globe, as well as in his own backyard.
This system of agriculture combines the raising of fish in tanks (recirculating aquaculture) with soilless plant culture(hydroponics). Here, the nutrient-rich water from raising the fish provides natural fertilizer for the plants, while the produce helps to purify the water for the fish. Fish are fed and then produce ammonia-rich waste. Then, bacteria cultured in the grow beds and fish tanks breaks down the ammonia, first into nitrites and then into nitrates. Plants take in the nitrates, which act as nutrients and fertilizer. The water in the system is filtered through the plants’ roots and growing medium be-fore going back to the fish. The oxygen entering through this system is essential for plant growth and fish survival.
Fish are a natural and very necessary part of the aquaponics system. When deciding which type of fish to raise, a multitude of factors came into play for Jefferson: What type offish would our community like? What type of fish appeals to a broad customer base? And more importantly, what is the most sustainable type of fish to raise hydroponically? In his research, Jefferson learned that while trout would be an extremely desirable fish to raise and sell, each one-pound trout requires 30 pounds of food—hardly sustainable. In contrast, a one-pound tilapia requires only 1.7 pounds of food. Alō Farms can take a one-gram tilapia and bring it to harvest in just nine months.
The biblical origin of the tilapia might be what finally won Jefferson over to the species. Another name for this fish is theSaint Peter’s Fish, and many biblical scholars believe this was the fish harvested in the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’s time. Visit that part of the world and you will find Saint Peter’s Fish on virtually every menu. Choosing to raise tilapia underscores the work Jefferson feels called to do.