Milwaukee - Monday morning at Sweet Water Organics. Upon my arrival, I was struck by the artistic flair and earthy ambiance that is quintessentially Sweet Water. From hand painted signs and colorful artwork through out, I was immediately impressed by the fact that Sweet Water was more than just a place where they grow fish and plants. I wandered about and explored while I sought out my host, Godsil. Upon finally encountering some monolithic work being undertaken outside, I found out that Godsil was not yet in, but immediately began chatting with Jessie Blom from Sweet Water Foundation.
Jessie was friendly and forthcoming and showed me every aspect of Sweet Water's wonderful operation, from the composting piles outside, to the new systems under Charlie Price's consult, to the existing systems inside. I was struck by Jessie's passion to further aquaponics and his mission of educating facilitators and educators in the school system. He had a great interest in the Aquaponics Association and both his mission and vision were very much in tune with the Associations and he was eager to find out more and how both could work together.
I met many more incredible Sweet Water team members, from Scott, who was harvesting fish, to Emma, the home schooled prodigy that came to volunteer a couple of days a week. I also met Jill and Nick and Josh and then spent a good deal of time with Mark who also volunteered his time and had recently been awed by aquaponics and drawn into the wonderful allure of Sweet Water. Mark ended up being my travel buddy for my tour of Growing Power in the afternoon.
At Growing Power we were met by an articulate young man that guided us through the maze of aquaponic systems and potted plants. At the beginning of the tour, we were greeted by Mr. Will Allen himself; larger than life, but yet his humble demeanor was striking. Little did I know that the very next day First Lady Michele Obama would be visiting. Growing Power has undoubtedly perfected composting and the utilization of multiple agricultural waste products, from fish to chickens and goats.
That afternoon I returned to Sweet Water where I was introduced to multiple educators from Milwaulkee's school district that has teamed up with Sweet Water Foundation via a USDA grant to teach teachers how to teach students about aquaponics. Sweet Water Foundation is certainly at the forefront of promoting aquaponics at the school level. My day wasn’t yet complete and I waited outside for Jesse Hull, Molly Stanek and Tom Knoll. It was my first time meeting Tom and was great to see Jesse and Molly again. Of course my dinner consisted of a tasty salad with Sweet Water greens. The company was great and we chatted for hours and if it were not for my hour and half drive back to Chicago, I think we would have never stopped talking.
The next day I met up with the incredible Myles Harston of AquaRanch. Myles called about an hour and 20 minutes before he was to pick me up to see if I would be ready in about 20 minutes. He said he figured I would be up and ready early; after all I was a farmer and fortunately I was. Myles and I weeded through the early Chicago traffic until we made our way to the large industrial building that housed the Plant and 312 Aquaponics. Brian from 312 met us outside the old meat processing plant where we dodged construction work and headed inside. Amid the rubble and debris, the vision for the Plant was slowly materializing; a urban center where a brewery, a bar, a Kombucha tea production and an aquaponics system are all to work together to utilize outputs from each system to maximize productivity and minimize waste. Just upstairs was 312 Aquaponics where Myles and I observed the work of Brian and Mario and their two partners. Brian explained how the young college grads were integrating technology to fine tune their urban aquaponic approach. Sensors and computer monitoring dialed in everything from pH levels to DO and revealed interesting trends generated on a computer screen. These guys were nothing short of incredible and this is what urban aquaponics is really about!
From 312, Brian and Mario took me to Windy City where I was able to check out an aquaponics system set up by Cityponics and where they were also doing some prolific raised bed gardening utilizing compost and the overflow from the aquaponic system. These guys knew how to grow some food! We then had some time to kill, so Brian and Mario took me on a tour of downtown Chicago before taking me to Soul Veg where I had the most incredible veggie BBQ ever. The food was great and hanging out in the 312 hood was even better. Our day wasn’t near over, so next we headed to CHAS, Chicago High School for the Agricultural Sciences where I saw a large system designed by Myles and had been operating by the students there for nearly7 years. Here Myles shared much of his expansive knowledge. It was an incredibly display of aquaponics working in a educational setting. Next, for the ultimate educational setting, we visited Chicago State University and the Director of the Aquaponics Program there, Emmanuel Pratt. CSU’s systems were also designed by Myles and Emmanuel was managing the system and we discussed potential studies his controlled systems could produce to benefit some of the issues surrounding food safety in Aquaponics that the industry faces.
On the ride back to the hotel, Myles and I discussed many topics including organic certification. Myles had his aquaponic system certified back in 2004 and then a couple of years later certified his outside traditional crop area. I don’t know what was more impressive, his incredible knowledge or his humble demeanor. This man was certainly a farmer that knew how to grow fish and vegetables and was more than generous with tips and information. Despite being organic certified, Myles thought there was incredible value in developing an aquaponic certification and also an organic certification for fish. We discussed how a self regulating type certification could be less costly for the grower than Organic certification and at the same time could help to increase consumer awareness and confidence in aquaponically grown food. How better for aquaponics to grow as an industry and bring about more sustainably grown food but by initiating a program where consumer education would drive demand for more of it. We also discussed a couple of other University programs that Myles thought might be able to begin some of the research many of us are eager to see occur regarding aquaponic food safety. Last, we of course talked about horses. We two have much in common.
The next day I headed to the airport with high hopes of getting into Denver and finally getting to see Sylvia Bernstein. Denver was getting an early winter storm and well over a foot of snow had already fallen. Up until now, all I had heard from Sylvia was that the weather and the fall had been beautiful and I stepped off the plane into 29° and Sylvia laughing at the size of my suitcase. I had packed lots of winter clothes! We headed to Boulder and I was amazed by the surreal beauty of the white blanket everywhere.
In Denver, Thursday lunch was spent with aquapon and IT guru James Fry who showed us his bathtub aquaponics system right in the front yard of his Boulder home. Impressive to see tomatoes and fish growing surrounded by snow! Sylvia showed me the sights in Boulder and Friday was spent visiting with JD Sawyer. JD gave us an incredible tour of GrowHaus where community aquaponics is making impressive strides, from education to incredible Chop media systems, to wonderful goals of feeding their community. Too cool to see aquaponics in action. From there we headed to downtown Denver to check out a few potential venues for next year’s Aquaponics Association Conference. Denver is going to be an incredible place for the next conference and I was already excited for something that is still nearly a year away. JD was spot on as next year’s Conference Committee Director.
The rest of my time in Boulder was spent visiting with my friends Sylvia and Alan and a great dinner with Dan Thornton and his wife. We talked aquaponics much of the days and late into the nights from nutrients and nitrates, to media and DWC, and to aphids and Neem; there was never a shortage of things to discuss. Sunday rolled around much too soon and it was time for me to return home. I hugged my friend at the airport, eager to return to greener acres from the white backdrop of Colorado, but sad to leave my friend. At least I was leaving with a brain buzzing with all kinds of new aquaponic ideas and info. I still feel a little bad for the guy that had to sit next to me on the plane ride home. Needless to say he was thoroughly educated in aquaponics by the time we landed in Tampa. :)