Raising fish in Kansas City food desert: Effort gets boost from HOK design firm

Aquaponics project to bring fish and vegetables to the urban core

Nile Valley Aquaponics had a ribbon cutting ceremony on Friday, March 24, 2017, bringing to life the dream of founder Dre Taylor. The project, at 29th and Wabash Avenue, will provide fish, vegetables, herbs along with jobs and mentoring opportunit
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Nile Valley Aquaponics had a ribbon cutting ceremony on Friday, March 24, 2017, bringing to life the dream of founder Dre Taylor. The project, at 29th and Wabash Avenue, will provide fish, vegetables, herbs along with jobs and mentoring opportunit

Dre Taylor’s dream began with digging a long, deep ditch on a corner in a rough part of town.

It was hot. People walking by thought he was about half crazy, and his saying he was going to grow fish and bugs didn’t do much to change that.

Now jump ahead to Friday. On that same corner, 29th Street and Wabash Avenue, Taylor stood with some new partners, including HOK, the Kansas City architectural and engineering firm that was the lead designer for the master plan for the Dubai Expo 2020 world’s fair.

It seems Taylor, 36, the great-grandson of a Mississippi sharecropper, had a pretty good idea about growing tilapia and vegetables in a food desert.

But as he said Friday at a ribbon-cutting for his Nile Valley Aquaponics, “It’s not a desert if you got water.”

Tony McGrail, an HOK project architect, said he read a story in The Star about Taylor and Nile Valley, which could turn out to be one of the most productive community gardens in the country.

“I couldn’t believe what he was doing over there,” McGrail said Friday. “I had to meet the man with all the fish. This could be happening all over America.”

As part of Friday’s event, HOK announced that it had designed a million-dollar expansion that will add several buildings and double the harvest to 120,000 pounds a year. A fundraising campaign is underway.

HOK Architects visualizes the future for Nile Valley Aquaponics at 29th and Wabash Avenue. Their plan, if brought to fruition, would include modern greenhouses, event space and places for the surrounding neighbors to relax and learn.

HOK said plans call for a renovation of the existing site that would open the front of Nile Valley to the public to engage the neighborhood in aquaponics, urban farming and sustainable living.

Soft-spoken, unassuming, incredible intelligence — that’s how McGrail described Taylor.

“He could have done this anywhere, but he’s here on the East Side,” McGrail said.

Kansas City Council members, chamber of commerce officials, police officers and members of gardening groups from all over the city attended the event. Food grilled. Chickens and goats watched from the back.

Taylor’s new partners also include the Barkley advertising agency and the Polsinelli law firm. He called it a dream team.

“The best team money can’t buy, because I don’t have any money,” he said.

That early ditch of his is now three trenches, each 120 feet long, 6 feet deep and 4 feet wide, filled with water and all enclosed. Rising above each trench is a series of tiers holding black soldier fly larvae, duckweed, gravel and floating vegetables.

Aquaponics involves fish and plants growing in the same system. Fish eat bugs and duckweed. Waste from the fish feeds the plants. In turn, the plants and rocks clean the water. A fraction of water needed for conventional gardening is required, harvested food is closer to consumers and, once you get past startup costs, aquaponics is largely self-sustaining.

Quite a leap for a project that began with a turn of a shovel in an urban littered lot. Taylor’s idea back then was twofold: provide year-round food for the neighborhood and instill a sense of community in the boys in a mentoring group he’d founded called Males to Men.

Early on, Taylor, who is single, no kids, depended on volunteers to help, and even on those hot days they showed up. Taylor also had to survive a fight over ownership of the project, but it ended in his favor. The project now operates as a project of the M2M (Males to Men) Community Foundation.

Dan Sykes, Nile Valley board member, recalled Friday that Taylor learned aquaponics in his basement.

“Now look at this place,” Sykes said. “This is all Dre. He started this, and people came to help. They drove from all over to this corner because of him.”

Dave West says Nile Valley changed his life. He lives across the street and one day, without really knowing why, he picked up a shovel and joined in the work. His mother had just died.

“I call this place Noah’s Ark,” he said. “When you come through the door, your stress leaves. I feel my mother when I walk down the aisle.”

As for Friday’s event, he said: “I’ve been waiting for this day a long time.”

Another volunteer, Mary Dees, said Taylor was refreshing in a world of so much negativity.

“He had a vision, and he stuck with it,” Dees said.

She went to him Friday and gave him a hug.

“I’m so proud of you,” she told him.

He thanked her.

Not much new comes to this part of the city. Taylor grew up there, left to play college football and probably could have stayed away, but he came back.

He wants to help rebuild the neighborhood. He said kids on school buses pass by and want to be part of what’s going on. He wants community pride.

When he spoke Friday, he spoke of West, who was able to buy a car with money he earned working at Nile Valley.

“Now that’s economic development,” Taylor said.

Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182