Urban REAP is reaping benefits!

By Katie Schaeffer

On Aug 22nd 2017, Mission Waco celebrated the grand opening of Urban REAP (Renewable Energy Agriculture project).  It was the culmination of a dream to create a place that would grow food for the North Waco neighborhood in a sustainable way, which emphasizes and teaches “creation care”.  Urban REAP has an aquaponics greenhouse, run by the energy collected from 36 solar panels, and filled with water from a 3,000 gallon rain water collection tank.  It also has an industrial composter, demonstration beds and garden plant sales area.  The project was funded by a large grant from Green Mountain Energy’s Sun club, as well as the Seth Dorrell Memorial Fund and private donations.  Since the Grand Opening, we have been busy growing produce, collecting food waste, growing plants from seed, giving tours to schools, businesses and individuals, building relationships with our neighbors, and learning so much about how to run each of the many components that compose Urban REAP.  It’s been an exciting and exhausting year.  As with any new venture, we have had successes and set-backs.  Below are some of the highlights of the last year for each component.

Our aquaponics system has done very well growing produce this year.  It can grow between 1,400-1,500 plants at a time on floating trays in nutrient rich water which is derived from fish waste that circulates throughout our system.  We used around 300 Hybrid Striped Bass in our system this year.  The system is able to grow a large variety of plants, but we chose to focus on Kale, Swiss Chard, Basil, Collard and Mustard Greens, Parsley, Cilantro, lettuce and tomatoes. We primarily sell our produce next door at the Jubilee Food Market, and across the street at both Mission Waco’s World Cup Café and D’s Mediterranean Grill.  One of the coolest parts of having an urban farm right next to a grocery store and 2 restaurants is that we don’t have to pack up our produce and drive it somewhere.  We just harvest it and minutes later, walk it over.  It doesn’t get much fresher than that, and our carbon footprint is zero!!  This year we are hoping to add a few more local restaurants as regular customers to help sustain what we do. It will probably require using a vehicle, but hopefully for only 5 minutes!  Our aquaponics system not only provides produce, but also up to 500lbs of fish and 720lbs of crawfish annually. Unfortunately, one of our big setbacks this year was that we lost our fish during a power outage in December.  So we have not been able to harvest any fish out of the system yet, and have had to delay the adding of the crawfish. We got a back up generator in January, and were able to replace the fish.  The Crawfish should be added by early October.  Looking forward to our first fish and crawfish harvest in our second year of operation!!

Another component at Urban Reap is our industrial composter, which is designed for facilities that throw away a lot of food, such as grocery stores, restaurants, cafeterias, hotels, etc.  The composter can take 150-180lbs of food waste a day, and in 24 hours, turn it into highly concentrated fertilizer compost for growing plants.  This past year, we easily met that amount of food waste daily, by collecting from World Cup Café, Jubilee Market and the neighborhood’s Blue Bucket Brigade.  The Blue Bucket Brigade (BBB) was an idea that Mission Waco founder and Urban REAP creator, Jimmy Dorrell, had as a way for neighbors to participate in our food waste collection.  Anyone can be in the BBB, by picking up a 5 gallon blue bucket and lid at REAP to keep at home for collecting kitchen scraps.  When it’s full or been under the sink too long, bring it back to our waste drop off area, rinse the bucket in our rinse area, and start all over.  We provide helpful guideline handouts and bags of sawdust to keep the smell down.  It’s been cool to see the community join in the composting efforts with such faithfulness and commitment.  We have made many friends with members of the BBB who regularly drop off their waste.  The highly concentrated compost/fertilizer is sold at REAP in 20lb bags, 1 gallon bags and even compost tea bags.  Looking forward to another year of turning trash into treasure!

Another thing we do at Urban Reap is grow garden plants to sell to the Waco community.  Most all our plants are grown from seed and sold in our sales area behind Jubilee Market.  We grow many varieties of flowers, as well as unique heirloom varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs.  Our sales plants are also growing in our demonstration beds so that customers can see what the size, shape and color the plants they are considering would look like fully grown.   We have had the privilege and pleasure of helping many from the neighborhood with plants and advice for their gardens. In April, we joined the Waco Downtown Farmers Market, where we not only sold our garden plants, but our produce, compost, T-shirts and creative ventures.  Our biggest hit at the farmers was our mini-aquaponics kits, which includes a coupon for an aquaponics plant from our system and a beta fish from the North Waco Fish store next door.  Volunteer, Judy Butts, gets the credit for coming up with that fantastic idea, along with most of the cool creative products sold. We have so enjoyed helping people make their homes, yards and lives beautiful and bountiful. We taking a break from the Farmer’s Market during the summer months and hope to be back in the fall.

Urban REAP’s first year is almost in the books, and all the above couldn’t have happened without the amazingly generous Waco community, Mission Waco Staff and the many, many, wonderful, faithful volunteers who have given their time and talents to make it so special. Two volunteers who went above and beyond in more ways than there is space to write are Tony Allen and Shelley Meyers who were at REAP from the beginning, and volunteered 6 days a week, at least 4-5 hours a day.  They became the aquaponics managers and even received “Volunteer of the Year” awards at Mission Waco’s Annual Banquet.  We also had two wonderful work-studies during the school year, Fischer Heibel and Courtney Doucet, who we couldn’t do without, working 2 hours a day, 6 days a week.  Lastly, our first intern, the delightful Lili Zertuche, has joined us this summer.  She is going into her junior year at Cornell as a sustainable agriculture major.

Daniel Hiatt and Katie Schaeffer

As we look forward to our second year, we are hoping to add classes for the community, lead by master Gardeners and experts on at-home composting, rain water catchment, aquaponics, gardening projects and more.  There are also hopes to eventually have a curriculum on creation care and gardening for youth.  I am so grateful for the privilege of being a part of this beautiful project and the Mission Waco community.  My time as the director is quickly coming to an end on June 30th.  My husband and I are moving on to another ministry we feel called to in Austin at the end of the summer.  We are very sad to say goodbye to the many dear people in Waco who have become sweet friends and like family to us.  So many have left impressions on us that will last a lifetime.  I am so happy to know that Urban REAP will be in the capable hands of its new director, Daniel Hiatt, starting on July 1st.  Daniel lives close by in the neighborhood with his wife and kids, where he has a large parcel of property that he has aspirations of developing an urban farm on.  He is a Truett Seminary graduate, and had Jimmy Dorrell as a professor of a class on Community Development.  He is a deacon at Calvary Church only a few blocks away, and has been involved in exploring avenues to revive and develop the community garden across the street from the church.  He has also been involved with, and a board member for the Heart of Texas Urban Garden Coalition.  His passions and direction in life align with those of the Urban Reap Director position, and we are so grateful that God brought him at just the right time.  Looking forward to what the Lord has in store for REAP in it’s 2nd year with Daniel at the helm.

If you haven’t already, come check us out!  Urban REAP is open to the public Monday-Friday 9am to 4pm, Saturdays 9am to 2pm, and closed on Sundays. Our address is 1505 N. 15th street, Waco, TX, 76707.  If you would like to volunteer or set up a tour, we can be reached by email at [email protected].

Katie Schaeffer and her husband Rick consider it a real privilege to be managing Mission Waco’s amazing Renewable Energy Agricultural Project (REAP).  Katie and Rick came to Waco at the end of 2015, from CA.  Katie is happiest being in nature and tending to plants, and eating good food with friends and family.  She and her husband Rick are also grateful for the privilege and deep joy of raising two sets of twin boys, who are now amazing 23 & 24 year old men. 

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email [email protected] for more information.


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