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Lifelong South Mountain resident raising up community by raising fish

Photo shows Dr. George Brooks, an African American man, standing behind plants being grown using aquaponics.

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By Tom Brecke

South x South Mountain

(This article first published in March 2024 in the South X South Mountain online news).

You can’t blame Dr. George Brooks for being partial to the ground in the South Mountain area. After all, he’s spent his entire life on the southside of Phoenix.

 And while land and soil are precious commodities for a myriad of reasons–including for growing food crops and gardens–it’s water that has the attention of Brooks.

 Today, water and all that it can produce in similar ways to soil is Brooks’ current focus for South Mountain and Laveen Villages. Through his company NxT Horizon, Brooks specializes in urban agriculture and is helping the community, by way of a program through the City of Phoenix, grow their own food via aquaponics, an ancient sustainable agricultural method that combines aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil).  

 In an aquaponic system, fish waste provides nutrients for plants, and the plants help purify the water, creating a mutually beneficial ecosystem. The process is an efficient and environmentally friendly method of food production by integrating fish and plant cultivation in a symbiotic relationship.

 It’s a story of southside history repeating itself, going at least as far back as the native Hohokam people that once inhabited this area and the miles of canals they dug, channeling water from present-day Gila and Salt Rivers to grow their crops.

 And that note is not lost on Brooks.

 “It’s getting reinvented because growing fish and crops just works,” says Brooks. “Aquaponics is the latest iteration of a line that you can trace back literally 5,000 years. It goes through every society from Native American, Chinese and African. It’s everywhere, reinventing this technology over and over again.”

 The City of Phoenix chose three organizations for its Backyard Garden Program—including NxT Horizon–to provide water-efficient, backyard technologies to allow families to grow a wide variety of crops in a “mini farm” setting.

 Ninety households were chosen from more than 600 applicants in the Estrella, Maryvale, Laveen and South Mountain Villages.

 Brooks said his company looks for “high-yield, low cost” solutions to “food deserts”–geographic areas with limited access to nutritious and affordable foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.

 Not only does this technology create the ability to grow hundreds of types of fruits and vegetables, growing fish for consumption is also part of the backyard farms. Brooks says catfish and tilapia are two species that grow well and that they are working on giant, fresh-water prawns also.

 And giving people the ability to go from being undersupplied to plentiful is one of the missions of Brooks and Nxt Horizon.

 “What if you could grow as many vegetables as you could actually eat?” asks Brooks. “It changes the conversation from scarcity to one of abundance.”

 He said Americans typically eat about 2,000 pounds of food each year, 30- to 40-percent of which can be grown in backyards,

 “It changes the entire equation, because (in this scenario) you’re creating the source and creating an entire economy based on that source and it’s produced in your neighborhood.”

 And while this technology will work in most any backyard, in nearly every neighborhood, it’s the southside and Laveen—Brooks lifelong home– that truly resonates for him and his family.

 Brooks recalls fondly his time on the University of Arizona faculty in the early 90s as an Aquaculture Extension Specialist, helping farmers across the state learn how to raise fish to better aid their crop production. And while he loved that job and position, South Phoenix was never far from his mind.

 “All that time, in the back of my mind, all I wanted to do was create an industry in Arizona, but I wanted that industry to include South Phoenix. But we just didn’t have the technology in 1990, he says. “Today we do, and I’m just glad to be a part of it.”

 Brooks, a former chair of the South Mountain Village Planning Committee believes preserving all the wonderful things that bring people to the area is a key to keeping the Southside a vibrant place to live. As is shared prosperity between the newcomers and those that have lived in the area for generations.

 “There are communities that have created a shared prosperity, where those that made the community great—so great that you wanted to move here—are not pushed out, while the (new residents) can come here too” says Brooks. “That’s our greatest challenge.”


Q+A Session:

 How have you seen South Phoenix evolve or change over the years?

 Greatly. I was born and raised in South Phoenix. Memorial Hospital. South Phoenix was not even part of the city at that time (1955) being annexed in 1960 if I remember correctly. The community I was raised in was largely African American. I don’t know how it would have been classified economically around 1960 but we were comfortable. But this community was a cauldron of innovation and leadership. Speaking of our neighborhood at 19th Street and Broadway Road, my father Rev. Brooks was the local preacher. He had already founded his church, but Southminster went on to its role in the creation of Head Start and Sesame Street as well an anchor for the Valley’s very active Civil Rights movement. Helen Mason the founder of the Black Theater Troup lived in the home directly west of us. Dr. Lowell Wormley in the big home across Broadway. The Farthing family lived next to the Masons. They were teachers in McNary, AZ during the school year, but summered in Phoenix. The great Willy Mays boarded in a home down the street because they would not let him stay in the hotel with his team I am told.

 Today, 65 years later so much as changed yet so much remains the same. Now called South Mountain, in some ways could be said is a hot bed of development though it has slowed since the pandemic. We will soon have light rail down Central Avenue. It could be a wonder or a disaster. That is all up to us. Gentrification started decades ago. Not surprising considering where we are. Sitting on the side of a mountain, 15 minutes from the airport and downtown without the need for a freeway to get there. This reality generates some amazing questions. Are we willing to create a shared prosperity where those who made South Mountain what it is can participate in the new realities that are certainly to come? Will we develop the Rio Salado into the ecological wonderland and green best as it was originally intended or will we succumb to the desire to clone what Tempe has done? Will we capture all of the unique social, economic and environmental opportunities inherent in this region, such as the creation of a food-based economy including investments in Agri -food tech and the jobs it could create or will it become Scottsdale South as some have predicted?

 I don’t know.

 What do you do for fun in your spare time—hobbies, etc.?

For many scientists one could honestly say work is fun. Well, it can be.

I honestly have not had much spare time lately. Working with the City of Phoenix I have had an opportunity to create part of that food-based economy through a small agri-food tech company I had the blessing to found called NxT Horizon. I am really interested in where this might go. We are currently working with some low cost “21st century magic” that could help to revitalize the 20th century victory gardens that provided 40% of the food in the US from urban backyards during WW1 and 2. Would it not be a wonder if we could do that again? However, I am truly looking forward to spending more time with my amazing wife Angela, and more time with our children and grandchildren. All that I do not see enough of now.

 What’s your favorite restaurant on the Southside?


 Dr. Brooks can be reached at: info@nxthorizon.com or 602-363-1677.

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