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Aquaponics: An Interview with Sweet Water Organics’ Matt Ray

Nourishing the Planet’s Kimberlee Davies spoke recently with Matt Ray, the principal farmer for Sweet Water Organics, an aquaponics training organization in Milwaukee, about his experience in the field of aquaponics.

Sweet Water Organics uses aquaponics technology to grow food in downtown Milwaukee.

What is aquaponics? How did you become involved?

Aquaponics has been around for centuries. It was traditionally a technique in tropical climates, using floating bamboo rafts with vegetation in fresh water pools. This was simply the adaptation of agriculture to the tropics. The technique has become cutting edge over the last 20 years. We can adapt aquaponics to today’s geographies and culture.

Aquaponics is a blending of aquaculture (the raising of aquatic animals) and hydroponics (growing plants in water without soil). In aquaponics, aquatic animals serve as the nutrition base for the plants. The great thing about aquaponics is that it is a closed system; it doesn’t have to flow in one pipe and out of another.

I saw it begin to pop up in the late 1980s, starting with the Virgin Islands, Australia, and even Asia, where fish are grown symbiotically with rice paddies. Forward-thinking farmers and activists began to develop the practice in non-tropical climates, and academics began researching the field. Twenty years later, we have a lot more people doing it. Scientific data has emerged to support the spread and success of this technique. It’s possible to take the nuts and bolts and adapt them to wherever you are. It’s going to work and it can be replicated.

My background was originally as a Montessori teacher for the 7th and 8th grades. I began a transition to aquaponics in 1996. Will Allen—a leader in the aquaponics field and chief executive officer of Growing Power—became my mentor. Milwaukee has a strong history in aquaponics, and Will has always been on the forefront. From Will’s tutelage, I moved into my own classroom—a natural move with my background in Montessori. I am now both an educator and a farmer.

At Sweet Water Organics, we built our first system in 2008, and we recently put up our first satellite aquaponics system at a local school building. Aquaponics provides endless educational content: worldwide food distribution, cooking, microbiology, food handling, fishing, marketing, and economics. It’s everything. It puts the students in a real-life situation. Plus, the system doesn’t require machinery, permitting students to participate.

How has the local community responded to Sweet Water?

I think all-in-all, the feedback is positive. You have to look at what your true impact on a community is: people asking when you’re going to hold a workshop; when you’re working with graduate students; when restaurants are dedicated to using our local products, and they understand we’re just getting into this. Even the public school system has picked up on our work. A high school is about to roll out a whole aquaponics program. Aquaponics offers the opportunity to empower the everyday citizen. It is personal and natural: something that can feed yourself and your neighbors.

We also engage the community in several ways. Most recently, we have challenged local architecture students to redesign our 40,000-square-foot indoor facility. The designs must incorporate our multiple forms of community outreach, including: a culinary facility, a learning lab (with an open classroom dynamic), a tinker lab (for hobbyists and entrepreneurs), a research lab (to encourage good data collecting), an innovation hub (to demonstrate design, similarly to living art), an area to grow commercial sprouts, food storage (something more concrete), and an area for art experimentation. This facility even includes performing arts.

A modern farmer looks for multiple outreaches and income streams. You’ve got be engaged in the community.

What are the biggest challenges to local food production? How does aquaponics address these issues?

I don’t know if aquaponics has answered the substantial global needs: food, shelter, health care, water, etc. I don’t know if one agricultural technique can solve these problems. The potential is there, but to say it can completely offset traditional farming is a big step. What aquaponics does do is provide local food. It also provides brownfield remediation. In more dense urban areas, it reclaims buildings and revitalizes real estate. Plus, it causes a ripple effect (people notice and get involved). People gravitate toward things that are nurturing, providing hope and an alternative answer.

Our disconnect to our food is one of the biggest challenges. This connection is directly related to our children’s health. The further we get removed from agriculture, the greater our reliance on big producers, which use a lot of water and pesticides. We have to change how we view agriculture; farmers can be smart, educated producers. In urban areas, we’re bringing farming to the people, solving the disconnect. It’s kind of like the neon sign. People naturally want to check it out. We create citizen ownership and pride.

Could such facilities potentially feed, or supplement the diet of, large populations?

I think so. It depends on how active any particular urban area is on pursuing local production. I think of total diversification: fruit trees and nut trees in parks; vertical aquaponics; remediate a part of the city and turn it into an intensive gardening plot; etc. Hit it hard. Our city has to commit to urban food production.

By creating consistent, fresh, and local products, you can gain institutional players—assistant living accounts, hospital accounts, school accounts. In my mind, this motivates me to do what I’m doing. These people—children, the recovering, the elderly, the poor—need the healthiest food. Let’s open to these accounts, knowing that they don’t pay the same premium as fancy restaurants. I’d love to see aquaponics hit the public school market. I know a charter school and high school that already participate. Even universities and business owners can get involved and become suppliers.

In my opinion, aquaponics does bring some consistency that outside farming cannot. At the very least, you can say, “who else can grow lettuce in January?” By repurposing an old factory, aquaponics is able to consistently produce healthy lettuce in the off-season.

Based on your work over the last several years, what advice do you have for those interested in working in aquaponics?

Read. And visit.

Do a little bit of both. Take a course if you can. And tinker. Use the gentle assets you have or those of your loved ones (if you know a plumber, ask for help). Most importantly, follow the yeses. One of my mentors told me that. You take stock of what you need and what you have. If somebody says no, you ask if they know somebody. If you get a no, find a yes. Follow those yeses.

What can individuals do to support your work?

If we’re doing a workshop, certainly sign up. Also, we’re always looking for funding for the work we do with the community through the Sweet Water Foundation. We are also looking for grant partnerships as well as contracting with schools and community organizations.

On a bigger level, learn about it, decide what you want to do with it, do it well, and teach others. The Internet allows people to check it out, so learn. We’re working on one of the major global issues. It’s more than how you can make money. If you want to do alternative energy, or waste management, it’s more than about you or your organization. We’ve got to get on the ball. Leave your ego at the door.

Kimberlee Davies is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

Editorial Notes: Link to a Spanish translation by volunteer April Scott.

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