October 9th, 2013

Jake Livesay was an unusual Texas teenager. Long before modern homesteading and self-sufficiency became trendy, he recognized a void between the food he ate and a lack of knowledge about where his food came from. After reading Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” a fictionalized modern classic about immigrants caught in debt loops, he says “it was the filthy food they were eating that stuck with me.” As his consciousness broadened, he began studying environmental science in high school. He became friends with people who were making homemade sausage and jerky. They began fishing and trapping together. “Teachers laughed at us but we didn’t care.”

Years later, Livesay landed in Knoxville to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee. Even though he was new in town and extremely busy, he still managed to find time to garden at  Beardsley Community Farms and to volunteer at Ijams Nature Center. Now a homeowner and a parent to a young son, he has become an unusual hardcore homesteader.

Growing Fish

Two year’s ago, Livesay became interested in growing and harvesting his own fresh water fish at home. “Globally, aquaculture is a big deal. It’s popular in Asia, South America, and Mexico. This is part of a modern agriculture movement.” After studying aquaculture for a year, including reading Small Scale Aquaculture by Steve van Gorder and Aquaponic Gardening by Sylvia Bernstein, he began collecting supplies. Livesay recommends looking for used equipment and contacting one’s local agriculture extension office for advice.

“I started with 75 three-quarter inch tilapia I bought through the mail.  In the beginning, getting the pond’s chemistry down was a challenge. If anything fails for two seconds, everything dies. You have to prime the water with ammonia so natural bacteria will grow. The chemistry of the pond is a lot of work. I was losing a fish a day for the first six weeks. All you can do is change the water. Get the chemistry right first. Anyone who already keeps an aquarium can do this.”

“Another mistake I made was keeping my fish pond in my garage. I did this so I could buffer the temperature because tilapia is a warm water fish. I had a heater hooked up to a feeder with an automatic timer. Using my garage was a nightmare because of the humidity. The walls were hanging with moisture.” Jake says, “In the end, the eating was great, but it cost a lot more than buying fish at a store. Overall, it was a worthwhile experience.”

Undeterred by last year’s errors, Livesay is continuing his fish farming this year. He has moved his 300 gallon Rubbermaid pond/trough outdoors where it is connected to a rain barrel and an ancillary pond filter.  He has covered the pond with a canopy to protect the fish from overflying herons, and to help regulate temperature. On the opposite end of the pond,  a hose drains the fish waste into Livesay’s raised bed organic gardens. He also dries sweet potato leaves from his garden to use as fish food. This year he is  farming catfish because “they are cheaper to feed and can tolerate cooler temperatures.” Right now he is priming the water with minnows to naturally add ammonia to the pond water prior to his delivery of catfish fingerlings from Fish Wagon. “They typically stock ponds, but they will fill a special order. Catfish is also much more readily available than tilapia. The difference of raising my own fish really resonated with me. The fish I grew was the first fish my son had ever eaten and he loved it. He was involved with the entire process.”

Slaughtering Ducks & Organic Gardening

Last year was also his first experience raising and slaughtering ducks for meat. He located ducklings on Craigslist from a nearby game bird breeder. “The ducks have to be kept warm, and they are messy and hysterical.” As the ducklings were reaching adulthood, Livesay watched YouTube videos to learn how to slaughter, drain, degrease, gut, and remove duck feathers.  He set up a gutting station in his yard so his friends could take turns prepping the ducks for grilling. [I told you he was unusual.]

Not far from the gutting station are two raised bed gardens Livesay created five years ago. Over the years he has cultivated rich soil by using mushroom mulch and burying his compost in the garden. In the winter he burns small fires in the beds to kill weeds and to enrich the soil with burnt wood ash. He uses no synthetic fertilizers and no pesticides. “I plant a lot of hot ass peppers and that seems to help with the pest control.” Last year he yielded 30 pounds of sweet potatoes and 50 pounds of Kennebec white potatoes (“great for fries”). He also successfully grew yellow crookneck squash, zucchini, varieties of cayenne peppers (to dry and grind), black beans, garlic, blueberries, and enough basil to make a year’s worth of pesto. He doesn’t bother with tomatoes or cucumbers due to their lack of nutritional density.

“My tomatillos turned out  sour and bitter, and nearly all of my cabbages were destroyed by cabbage worms.” He relates these few failures to author Kurt Timmermeister’s book, Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land. “Over time you will learn to grow what works for you. Gardening is a fundamental unit of community. Find other gardeners and see what works for them.”

Jake believes sharing ideas and skills is important for community building and for improving quality farming and sustainability. “I have formed a loose collective with some friends who are skilled in textiles, bread baking, and artisan beer brewing, and we enjoy trading the products we make or grow. In our culture, we keep trying to change, but we keep talking to each other about it. We need to reach out to others and expand the dialogue about more efficient living.”

“Unfortunately, where I’m at now in Knox County, there is no like-minded community around to help, unlike in other parts of town, like Parkridge and the 4th and Gill neighborhoods.” Jake presently lives in the county where chickens in residentially zoned areas are still not allowed.  “Someday I would love to live in the city and raise chickens, continue aquaculture with a semi-enclosed outdoor space, and to build an outdoor bread/pizza oven. I’d love to see community space available for aquaculture. That would be amazing. These things can be done on a small amount of land, leaving a small footprint. Sharing knowledge, experience, and labor is a good thing.”

 For further reading about fish farming, please visit Narratively Magazine.

Read more KnoxZine garden/homesteading articles here:

Winged Elm Farm

Urban Guerilla Gardener

Do-It-Yourself Shed 

© Debra Dylan, 2013


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