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Monroe tepee has community buzzing

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  • Learn more:

    Visit www.imagineglobalaquaponics.com.

    About aquaponics

    An information sheet about Imagine Global Aquaponics Corp. states the firm “specializes in sustainable and symbiotic food production systems. In traditional aquaculture, fish waste accumulates in the water, which increases toxicity for the fish if it isn’t removed. In IGA’s aquaponics systems, waste water from fish tanks is circulated through a hydroponics system, where the byproducts from the aquaculture are filtered by the plants’ roots and taken in as vital nutrients. The resulting clean water is then recirculated back to the fish, creating a closed-loop system.

    “Using 95 percent less water than current agricultural methods, minimal labor (no tilling or weeding) and little electricity, aquaponics is an almost-zero-waste closed system that closely replicates the interconnectedness and interdependence seen in nature,” the information sheet states. “Aquaponics creates no impact on the local environment.”



A large tepee on rural Ridge Road north of Monroe has made more than one passing driver do a double-take.

“The whole community has been buzzing about that,” said Lynne Mical of the Union County Chamber of Commerce. Mical said she and others have been wondering who put it there this summer, and why.

The buzz may become even louder because of the unusual venture the tepee represents: Imagine Global Aquaponics Corp. plans to construct an efficient, symbiotic ecosystem for raising fish and vegetables on the site.

Mical said she and others at the chamber were not aware of any other aquaponics business in the Monroe area.

One of IGA’s founders, Diane “Atona” Parrinello, said she and a group of friends came up with the idea for the business in 2011 as a way to address hunger issues and diminishing natural resources worldwide. She said she has no official title because the company has no hierarchy, and all who work for it are equal partners.

A guiding principle of IGA is that “all life is interconnected and interdependent, just like systems that sustain our world,” Parrinello said. “One part of our intention was to find a way that we could work with change that would make a difference in the way we were growing our food.”

The group formed the corporation in 2012. At the time, Parrinello was living on a 60-acre Colorado ranch surrounded by national forests, she said. She moved to North Carolina after IGA commissioned a feasibility study to determine the best U.S. location for its new venture.

“It was 126 pages,” Parrinello said of the study, “and it showed that actually this area of Charlotte, N.C., was the best area to put this kind of a system.”

What gave this region an edge over other cities and states, she said, was its people: progressive, responsible, altruistic and “with traditional values that we liked.”

After visiting Charlotte and driving through the surrounding countryside, she said, “We found this wonderful property that was absolutely perfect.”

Connected to nature

IGA bought the 4.8-acre parcel at 1215 Ridge Road in late December, according to county tax records. In May, the group erected its tepee, which Parrinello said is a symbol of humanity’s connection to the natural world.

“There’s an association people make with tepees,” Parrinello said. “Everyone loves a tepee. People associate tepees with Native Americans … a people connected to the natural world.”

She said the Monroe facility will be run by a Native American man, Perry Eastman, when it is complete. Eastman’s father was “Crow and Northern Cheyenne … from eastern Montana,” Parrinello said, and his mother is from the Onondaga Nation of New York.

The tepee also serves a practical purpose: “It’ll keep me out of the elements as the facility is being built,” she said.

Unfortunately, the natural world already has invaded the Monroe tepee, with mold spores flourishing during the wet summer months; but Nomadics, the Oregon company that made the tepee, replaced it with a larger model.

The new, 26-foot-diameter tepee was scheduled to be placed on its 27-foot-high poles Aug. 7.

Plans are that the tepee soon will be joined by greenhouses and a building that eventually will contain as many as 40 fish tanks of 3,500 gallons each.

“We’re not going to start with a 40-tank system, because we have to work the bugs out first,” Parrinello said. “The fish tanks will be in their own building, and the vegetables will be in greenhouses. … As the fish increase, the greenhouses will increase.”

IGA will start by raising tilapia, later adding hybrid striped bass and barramundi. She said the group already has a distributor to get their fish to grocery stores, and they hope the distributor will add their vegetables – lettuce, cucumbers, bell peppers, basil, wheatgrass and more – when they become available.

“What we intend to do in our packaging is unique: Put the roots with the plant,” she said. As a result, some of the packaged products “will still be alive.”

Supporting nonprofits

An aquaponics system, Parrinello said, is a much more efficient way to raise fish and vegetables than more traditional farming, and it adds more nutritional value to the foods. Because it uses much less water than other farming methods, it also is better for the environment, she said.

“Seventy percent of our fresh water is consumed in the way we grow our food, and this has to change,” she said.

“Most of the fish that you see in grocery stores is coming from Asia, from China,” Parrinello said. “Some of it is from home. We want to also point out that our lakes are being fished out. So we have to change.”

How much an aquaponic system can produce depends on several factors, such as the type of fish and vegetables raised. A typical five-tank system can produce 25,000 pounds of fish and 326,000 pounds of vegetables in a year, she said.

But Parrinello’s quick to point out that IGA “is not here just to make money, but here to help the community.” She said the company plans to donate fresh food to local churches and nonprofits that serve the poor, and it hopes to provide aquaponic systems for churches so they can “sustain people in their parish that may not be getting enough food.”

“Once we start making money, a percentage of our money is going to go to nonprofits,” she said. “So every person who purchases our fish or vegetables will be supporting their community.”

Not just their local community, she added, but the global community as well.

Early reactions from locals

The reaction so far from the community has been encouraging, Parrinello said, and underscores the qualities outlined in the feasibility study.

“The first person Perry and I met was Vic Price,” she said. “He immediately welcomed us and opened his home. … He mills his own wood, and he provided us with the wood that made our tepee deck.”

Price’s wife, Sandra, “made a surprise visit to me to deliver a gift of hand-knitted dish cloths,” Parrinello said.

“Then there is our darling, 91-year-old sharp-as-a-tack, big-hearted (neighbor) Mildred Tomberlin. Mildred has opened her home to us many a day with kind words of welcome and support for us being a part of her life.”

“She knitted slippers for us to wear in the tepee, now a prized possession of mine,” Parrinello said.

Susie and Louis Mical are “always greeting us with smiles, and (a) most-happy surprise: wonderful meat. Susie brings water at times to our baking-in-the-sun workers. Twice Louis has repaired our mailbox, and many more times shared his big heart by mowing our land.

“Donald W. Shown has shared his wisdom, saving hours of work on our tepee poles, and he also placed his loving labor on our land by keeping the field mowed.

“Stacey Keziah brought a delicious surprise of his wonderful goats’ milk. He came with an open-hearted welcome, then left and returned to my delight, as I love goats milk.”

“There were others that stopped by, curious and full of welcome,” Parrinello said. “We know we picked a great location and hope to return all the kindnesses all of the locals have shown us.”

Jane Duckwall is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Jane? Email her at jbduckwall@gmail.com.
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