The New Alchemy Institute Starts Its Second Decade

By 1980 the New Alchemy Institute had put ten years of research into renewable energy and sustainable farming methods, with an emphasis on symbiotic combinations of agriculture and aquaculture.

| January/February 1980

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PHOTO 1: The New Alchemy Institute's ark is the most distinctive architectural feature of the Cape Cod community of Hutchville. PHOTO 2: Fish and hydroponic tomatoes grow symbiotically in this organically sealed pond. PHOTO 3: The Institute collects seaweed to provide mulch and compost for their gardens.


What if you could harvest 100 pounds of delectable fish per year, from a tank that's also an efficient solar collector and looks like an oversized living room aquarium? And what if you could drain off about 100 gallons of nutrient—rich waste water from the tank— each week to irrigate your garden and increase its productivity by as much as 100%? And what if you could then turn around and feed a portion of your fertilized garden's output—a forage crop that's 32% protein and high in B vitamins—back to the fish in the tank?

Does it all sound too good to be true? If so, consider the fact that such an aquaculture/agriculture symbiosis—a system that enables a one-calorie energy input to yield five calories in tasty fish—is just one of the explorations into the ecological frontier that have occupied the New Alchemists of Falmouth, Massachusetts for the last ten years.

Marine biologists Dr. John Todd and Dr. William McLarney set out—one day back in the fall of 1969— to pursue an entire family of these symbiotic relationships ... with the ultimate hope of rearranging humankind's consumptive habits to the point where we could blend into the ecosystems we're now destroying.

In fact, the New Alchemy Institute is an ecostructure itself (which is, of course, composed of a variety of natural subsystems) ... one that has been carefully planned and then allowed to evolve. Yet—all through the ongoing process of failure, improvement, and change which makes up natural selection—the unvarying core of the alchemists' work has continued to be the study of the interrelation of aqua- and agriculture.

However, new projects have grown around the original backyard fish farm (which continues to produce a high-yield annual harvest inside its geodesic dome) and the wholistic gardens. Next to the first aquacultural project, for instance, is the three-level "miniark": a polycultural fish experiment where Sacramento River blackfish, Chinese mirror carp, and bullheads live in separate but connected ponds ... which serve one another by both controlling wastes and producing food.

Beside the ponds stands the sailwing windmill (locally known as "Big Red") that pumps the water for the mini-ark. The alchemists built the 20-foot-span wind machine from pieces of TV antenna, 3.4-ounce Dacron polyester, rubber bungee cords (for automatic rotor pitch control), and an old trailer tire ... that flexes to draw a gallon of water per stroke.

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