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Of Fish and Food

produce growing in an aquaponic greenhouse
Aquaponics at the Ingenuity Innovation Center

I went to meet Kate Wildrick at the Ingenuity Innovation Center recently and the place just blew my socks off. After 3 ½ hours of touring the facility, my brain was ready to explode. So here’s a woman, a couple, a family, a community (it’s hard to separate them) whose resources were reduced to nothing during the economic downturn of 2009, but who had a handful of explosive ideas.

Aaron is the inventor, the “MacGyver” of the group, the idea guy. He created an energy device out of a bicycle wheel, some plywood and a few spools of copper wire. Based on Nikola Tesla’s induction coil technology, the device uses the input from one car battery to charge 5-6 car batteries. Not only that, when the first battery is depleted, you just swap it with one of the charged batteries and the system keeps going, renewing itself. Conceivably, a unit this size could provide enough electricity for an entire household, taking it off the grid.

Aaron and Tyler at a workbench
Aaron and Tyler working on their Tesla-based energy device.

When the academics were invited to look at the device, they said it was impossible. But the tinkerers watched it work and wanted to get involved.

When Kate saw this, she decided to put her energy into creating a space where Aaron could put his ideas into practice. “I just need land,” he said. Not long afterward, they discovered a 20-acre lot for sale outside St. Helens, about 40 miles from Portland, Oregon.

At the time, they were living on just $550 a month. But Kate knew how to structure unconventional deals. She talked to the owner about starting a community-supported innovation center. At first it was a rather foreign idea and hard to grasp, but since the land had been sitting vacant for 5 years, he eventually agreed to a rent-to-own deal. In 2012, Kate and Aaron moved in and started trying out different things to find out what the community’s wants and needs were.

Aquaponics—Veggies with a Small Footprint

One of their early experiments in aquaponics generated a lot of excitement. When you see it in action, you can understand why. This is a closed-loop system where fish are raised in a tank and the water from the tank is used to grow vegetables in an adjacent bed. The fish fertilize the water used to feed the plants and the plants clean the water that is then cycled back into the fish tank. By themselves, each system would eventually break down and the water would need to be replaced: the fish would use up all the oxygen in the water and the plants would use up all the nutrients. But with aquaponics, the two systems renew each other so the water can be used indefinitely.

Sometimes visitors will say, “You’ve got bugs on your plants, you should spray them.” But what would happen if you spray pesticide on the plants? That’s right—the fish die. It’s a closed-loop system. Whatever happens in one part the loop, happens in the other. When people see this, they begin to make the connection with what’s happening in the closed-loop system we all live in—planet earth.

An aquaponics system yields 10 times that of a traditional garden with the same footprint. Once it’s set up, a 27 square foot aquaponics system can provide a small family with all the vegetables they need, plus fish, for around $50 a month. The USDA estimates that a thrifty food plan for a family of four is about $584 per month (which of course includes, bread and fruit and cheese and everything else, but you get the idea). A one-acre aquaponics system can feed a thousand people. Kate and Aaron’s small 20 acre farm could conceivably feed the entire town of St. Helens. You can even set up a small aquaponics system in your living room. The possibilities for creative integration are endless. For instance, a local youth center could build an aquaponics system to learn about agriculture and sell the vegetables to the chef next door.

Innovation and Community Building

But it’s not just about growing food. The Ingenuity Innovation Center is a learning center where everybody, Kate and Aaron included, learns by doing. It’s messy. It’s imperfect. Some things fail. But every failure teaches them something valuable and the next time is more successful.

group photo with Murray Hallam
Murray Hallam (center front), aquaponics pioneer from Australia, held a workshop at the Center. Kate Wildrick and Aaron Imhof are behind the sign.

It’s also about community building. Building your own aquaponics system can seem a bit daunting at first, so Kate and Aaron decided to launch the “Adopt A Growbed Program” where people can rent out vegetable beds by the month. Every Saturday, everyone gets together and tends the beds together. People learn and discover and share together. Then, whenever you are ready, you can build your own system. But it’s not you alone—you’ve got a team to help you put it together. And buddies who can look after it while you are on vacation, just as you look after their system.

And the food! Oh my goodness! Kate picked a cherry tomato that was just barely turning orange and the flavor exploded in my mouth. Just think! Tomatoes—really good tomatoes—all year long!

Even the way the food is harvested is changing. Rather than grow the chard, harvest the stocks and then pull the plant out at the end of the season, they leave the plant in year after year. So now they have old-growth chard with trunks 3 inches thick and succulent stalks growing off the trunk, ready to eat. Not only do the plants become more established and stable, you end up with seeds for your seed bank.

Challenging Assumptions

Rose Imhof talking with a participant
Rose Imhof converses with participant at a Barn Raising event.

Kate, Aaron, Rose Imhof (Aaron’s mother) and Tyler Muir (a young electrical engineer who joined the team) have created a space where the unknown is not something to fear, but something to explore and discover. You can’t go from a 300 square foot apartment to a 20 acre innovation center on nothing but an idea, if you aren’t willing to step into the unknown, put out a request and respond to what shows up. Every problem brings turmoil, certainly, but it also brings solutions and often in surprising ways. Two weeks after moving in, the barn burned down. The hay had been cut too early and was too green. In the heat of the sun, it spontaneously combusted and created one heck of a fire. But with the insurance money, they were able to build a beautiful new barn that has enough space for a gathering place, an art studio and a workshop space.

Kate and her team are challenging assumptions about what’s possible. They are shifting the thinking from a problem-orientation to an outcome-orientation. Rather than saying, “We’ve got all these problems, how are we going to solve them all?” They say, “What do we want to create and how do we get there?” It’s an incredible thing to be a part of. From day to day, you never know what’s going to show up. Or what you’ll learn. Being able to say, “I don’t know…” is extraordinarily powerful. When this team sees something they need to learn about, they put together a class and invite the community so everyone can learn about it together. And in doing so, they’ve accomplished incredible things in a very short time.

Now after only 3 years, all kinds of resources are showing up. One supporter has offered to buy the land and put it in a land trust for them. Murray Hallam, the guru and pioneer of aquaponics arrived from Australia to do a workshop and now is collaborating with Kate and Aaron to write the curriculum and set up two training centers—one here on the farm in Oregon and one in Australia.

People with expertise and money are starting to show up as well. But Kate and Aaron are only interested in working with those who are willing to explore new models of doing things. Rather than exploiting a system for financial gain, how do we work with the community and empower them to take charge of their own well-being?

Learn More…

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