Aquaponics Association 2011 Conference Highlights

By: Tawnya Sawyer

Aquaponics Association logoThe crazy thing is that I’m going to try and recap the highlights of the 2011 Aquaponics Association Conference in one blog post that can actually be read in under a half an hour. Wish me luck!

Getting there – We knew it was going to be a good weekend because the airlines actually cooperated. Alan was on Frontier Airlines, but I booked my flights later so I was on an earlier United flight. I’m not a fan of United, mainly because of their miserable history of too often not getting me where I need to be on time. Sure enough, when we got to the airport we discovered that Alan’s flight was on time, and mine would be at least an hour late. So I went to the United Customer Service desk and asked if they would put me on the Frontier flight – and they agreed! So I sped over to the Frontier terminal just in time for boarding, was assigned the middle seat next to Alan, and then found out that the window seat was a no-show! Yes, definitely a good start to the weekend!

Aquaponics Association 2011 Conference
“three dimensionalizing” – James Godsil, Alan Bernstein, Sylvia Bernstein, Myles Harston, Paul Suder



The people experience – What I was looking forward to the most at the Aquaponics Conference was what I called ‘three dimensionalizing’ my online friends. I’ve formed many wonderful aquaponic relationships over the past few years through the Aquaponic Gardening Community site and just from bumping into folks striding down the same aquaponics path. But only rarely do we actually meet in person. Even Gina, who I had planned the entire conference with and I consider now to be my closest friend, was only known to me online or over the phone. This event changed all that! It started with being told the wrong room number at hotel check-in and wouldn’t you guess, it was Gina’s room! So there we were trying to use our key card to get into Gina’s room. When she realized it was me busting in, all was forgiven in a flurry of hugs. That was quickly followed by a call from Mark Rhine of RhibaFarms looking to start happy hour in the bar. Once settled in the bar, the scene was a constant flow of introductions. Raychel Watkins from Hawaii, JD Sawyer from Colorado, Charlie Price from Aquaponics UK, Myles Harston from AquaRanch in Chicago, then Murray Hallam and Frank Gapinski showed up and barely made it in the door before they were mobbed like celebrities. I could go on forever, but I won’t – just please understand how incredible it was to finally put faces to all these names and phone voices!

The Farm Tours – We had rented a car to share with Murray and Frank to tour the local farms on Friday. We started the day at Green Sky Growers, which is an incredibly high-tech roof top greenhouse owned and operated by Aquatic EcoSystems. It was fun to see in a Disney-esque kind of way, but we all didn’t think that it was terribly applicable to real-world aquaponics situations. We felt that there was just too much stocking density, filtration and plants moving and whirling around to be practical.

The next stop was Sahib’s place which was in an alley behind a strip mall. Incredible what he has done to show how an otherwise useless space can be turned into a productive garden.

Our final stop was Aleece Landis’s home (AKA TCLynx). This is the garden that I was looking forward to seeing the most. TCLynx is a long-time, extremely active, and very knowledgeable member of the Aquaponic Gardening Community and her homestead is very much a laboratory of aquaponics and permaculture experimentation. I was not disappointed! First, ‘TC’ was exactly as I had expected her to be. She was wearing a wide brimmed hat, a tee-shirt, jeans, and boots. She seemed briefly stunned that Alan and I had shown up with Murray and Frank, but only briefly. Because we came between tour times she was able to give a private tour, mostly to Frank’s camera as he tried to capture the spirit of this place. She explained ‘duckaponics’, and her technique for filtering her duck pond water using plants. She showed us her Black Soldier Fly larvae bins and how to take the fruit of a loofah plant and create a natural sponge from it. It was definitely the highlight of the tour for me.

Friday ended with JD Sawyer of Colorado Aquaponics giving an outstanding Aquaponics Basics class to a room of perhaps 130 people – over half the registrants, followed by a poolside cocktail party. The party was a continuation of the atmosphere of the previous night with people introducing themselves everywhere you looked. Someone said to me “I’m normally pretty uncomfortable in situations like this, but here, with this group, I feel right at home!”

Gina, Alan and I left the party early to order room service and finish assembling the 255 registration packets for the next morning. We were up until sometime in the middle of the night (was it 1:00 am?) clipping dinner choice coupons onto envelopes, drinking cognac, and laughing until we collapsed on the floor. It was the perfect ending to the day.

The Saturday Conference – Saturday dawned with our first true organizational challenge – registering 255 people, and handing out pre-purchased tee-shirts, all in an hour. Alan was in charge of the t-shirts, Gina and Tonya were on the registration desk, along with several other volunteers (actually friends who got ‘volunteered’) and my laptop and I were on crisis patrol. There were a few glitches, but they were manageable in the time we had allotted, and we were able to start the day’s program reasonably on time.

I was the first speaker, and my mandate was to open the conference, welcome everyone, thank those who helped pull off the conference, and talk about how the day was going to flow. My measure of success was that I was able to get through the ‘thank-you’s (especially to our spouses) without bawling. It worked!

Next up was Charlie Price of Aquaponics UK who, despite a weird color problem with his slides, inspired the audience with his diverse aquaponics projects in the UK and beyond. Charlie was followed by an interesting panel discussion on ‘The Future of Aquaponics’ with Murray Hallam, James Godsil of Sweetwater Organics, Susanne Friend, and Charlie; all skillfully moderated by Gina. By this time it was time for the lunch buffet and Susanne Friend’s moving presentation on ‘What Aquaponics Can Do for Humanity’.

The afternoon workshops were a blur! We had three rooms going with presentations that switched on and off every 40 minutes. We had to run it a bit like a military operation, and hopefully we didn’t offend any of our speakers with that! Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to sit through many of the presentations, but there were a few highlights from briefly standing in the back of some of the presentation rooms. The first of these was Meg Stout’s performance building a complete aquaponics system, then covering it with a greenhouse, all in under an hour! Meg and her daughter are naturals in front of an audience and their ease with the crowd reminded me of a cooking show – except they couldn’t just pull a souffle, already done, out of the oven! Another highlight was Melissa Rasmussen, who at the age of 19 is already out living in mud huts and building aquaponics systems in Ghana. My good friend Ann Forsthoefel wowed her packed room with so many farmers market selling tips that people were getting writer’s cramp. While I missed the presentation Myles Harston of AquaRanch gave, it completely wowed Alan, who has no real interest in commercial aquaponics but can spot the ‘real deal’ when he sees it. Finally I think of Franz Schreier, the shy German physicist who introduced his new carbon-negative greenhouse technology to an enraptured audience and received a well-deserved standing ovation.

Saturday Evening – After the last afternoon speaker was done, Alan and I went up to our room and I collapsed on the bed. There was just an hour until we needed to be back on stage for the dinner entertainment, and I hadn’t seen Murray all afternoon. Uh oh. Then Alan pointed out that five cases of books needed to be moved downstairs for the book signing party, and asked if I really had a plan for that event. ‘Not really,’ was my response. ‘I’ve recruited Rob and Ann, and I’m sure Gina will be involved, and that’s as far as I’ve gone into organizing anything, and that’s as much as I can think about it right now. Did you see Murray this afternoon?’ He hadn’t, but he was sure he would show up and besides, he needed to get those books moved (thank God he came along!).

Next Gina showed up and joined me spread eagle on the other side of the bed in complete and total exhaustion. Just when we started trying to figure out a plan for what we were going to do for evening entertainment there was a knock at my door and it was a very jovial Murray and Frank. Alan had bumped into them in the elevator and told them of my burgeoning panic attack. We all had a few good laughs, and started talking about the events of the day when I realized that there were only 10 minutes before dinner! After shooing everyone out of the room I broke all records for getting dressed, putting on make-up, etc!

Murray’s dinner keynote was exactly what we had asked and hoped for. He told hilarious tales of his first experiences with aquaponics, and when he asked for questions from the audience someone yelled ‘we love you, Murray.’ Always quick on his feet he responded ‘Heckler! Someone eject that person from the room!’

Murray was then tasked with auctioning off the greenhouse and aquaponic systems that Meg Stout had built earlier in the day, which he did with great fervor and got the bidding up to a $900 donation to the new Aquaponics Association. But the best part was when Rob Nash stood up and suggested that most people in the audience don’t have that kind of money, but they would like to contribute something. How about we all just give $5 each to the Association? What ensued was nothing short of incredible. A line of people formed across the entire banquet hall and people paraded up to the table in front of Murray and dropped money on the table. It was like a revival meeting! Almost $2300 was raised for the Association that night. See the video to experience it for yourself.

Next up was my introduction to my new book, complete with a new trailer video, and my ‘thank you’s to all in the audience who had already endorsed the book. The trailer got a standing ovation, and I was completely overwhelmed by the warm wishes from the audience. That enchantment continued as we left the banquet hall and went outside for the first sales of the Aquaponic Gardening book, and the first time I’ve ever officially signed a book. It was a very surreal feeling, and the night was pure magic for me as I experienced the enthusiasm and gratitude for my work from the aquaponics ‘tribe’.

The Sunday Association Meeting – Sunday started early as we scheduled a – ACK! – 6:30 a.m. Association Steering Committee meeting to make sure we were prepared for the Aquaponics Association Organizational Meeting at 10:00 a.m. Wayne Hall (one of the founding committee members of the new Association) had done a great job of preparing the slide presentation so it ended up that there wasn’t a lot to do except talk about the flow of events, and go find some strong coffee!

The Association meeting went well. Many took the opportunity to speak up, but with only one exception (there is always at least one challenging person in every meeting like this, isn’t there?) the meeting went quite smoothly with lots of good questions and responses that were generally accepted. Without boring you with the details (the minutes will soon be publicly posted for that) I’m happy to report that the Aquaponics Association charter was unanimously accepted by the 200+ people in the room, and the officers duly elected with myself as the U.S. Chapter Chair, Murray as the Australian Chapter Chair, and Gina as the Association Chair.

The final event was the Epcot tour, which was an entertaining way to end this life-changing weekend. On the bus ride back I sat next to Myles Harston of AquaRanch who framed his feelings about the weekend beautifully when he said (I’m sure I don’t have this exactly right, but this is pretty close) I’ve been in this business for a long time, but I’ve always felt like a lone pioneer. Now with this conference I feel I belong to a community.

And as a community we shall all be stronger. I’m looking forward to next year already!