I’m sitting in the Milwaukee airport listening to the sounds of the Packers / Bears football game behind me, punctuated by the occasional whoops and cheers from the airport crowd. I’m heading home from the Aquaponics conference at Sweet Water Organics where I’ve been soaking up all manner of aquaponics over the past three days.
It was a successful weekend, especially considering how quickly it was organized. There was much information shared on a variety of topics, including the aspirations of Sweet Water, exciting developments in the U.K., specifics on breeding and raising yellow perch, and some inspiring local school projects. I usually find with events like this, however, that the people you meet at the event are what really make it valuable. This workshop was no exception to that rule.
There were probably 25 people at the workshop, plus all the employees and other folks associated with Sweet Water who popped in and out over the weekend. Most of these people were extremely interesting and worth highlighting. I’m going to restrain myself, however, for the sake of brevity and only highlight the four that I spent the most time with, and honestly with whom I was most impressed.
Charlie Price, Director, Aquaponics UK – I have to say that Charlie was the person, other than the key players at Sweet Water, who I was looking forward to meeting the most.
I wasn’t disappointed. First, Charlie has one of those very rare academic pedigrees that are perfect for aquaponics – masters in Aquaculture followed by a PhD in Integrated Farming Systems (I might not have that exactly right but it is close). He spent some time studying integrated farming systems in Thailand, followed by a stay at the University of the Virgin Islands studying under Dr. Rakocy in his aquaponics program. Now he is running Aquaponics UK, which is a not-for-profit social enterprise dedicated to designing, installing and supporting aquaponic growing systems in the UK. Charlie’s company is responsible for the Farm: Shop, a concept store in an urban London neighborhood with chickens on the roof, pigs in the yard, and an aquaponics system in the basement. He has also established many other aquaponics systems, is currently working on a graduate level aquaponics curriculum, consulting in Africa and the Middle East, and working on a line of systems for U.K.-based home gardeners. For all this, Charlie is an unassuming, quiet, charming guy with a fabulous sense of humor. He’s the kind of guy you’d want to go out to a pub with.
Molly Stanek and Jesse Hull, Sweet Water Horticulture – I’m putting these two together because they really come as a team, both in their jobs managing horticulture for Sweet Water and as a couple in life.
These two oversee the living components of Sweet Water. They gave a wonderful presentation about aquaponics in general, and Sweet Water in particular, that included beautiful photography by Molly of some of the insect life, good and bad, on their plants. Molly gave me a tour of some of the planting beds there. At one point, she lifted one of two pieces of coir matting that was soaking in the beds and I saw that it was full of red worms. She obviously has a passion for the plants, and told me about experiments they are constantly running on different lettuces, basils, watercress and other greens. Jesse seemed more focused on the systems – their newest solids filtration design, water quality, and lighting. Together they make an incredibly knowledgeable, fervent aquaponics management team.
Tom Knoll, Sweet Water Replication – Then it was Tom Knoll’s time to speak. Tom talked about his background and how it has informed his philosophical approach to spreading the Sweet Water message, and perhaps ultimately their systems, world-wide.
This took most of the time Tom had because his background is that extensive. Tom is a Zen Buddhist meditation instructor, and has taught in Thailand and ministered in the San Francisco prison system. He has worked with the World Bank on projects in India. He was the Lead Evaluator for the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee, which is the largest non-profit in Wisconsin. He has a long history of working with Will Allen and Growing Power. Tom is a brilliant philosopher with a practical background in social business structures. We had some fascinating conversations ranging from Walmart’s urban impact to the international impact of aquaponics.
And, of course, I finally met one of the energetic visionaries behind Sweet Water, James Godsil, who was full of smiles and hugs and seemed to be enjoying himself thoroughly. He, and the entire Sweet Water team, should feel very good about what they pulled off this weekend.