FoodChain nonprofit Aquaponic Farm serving foodbanks in Lexington, KY; Putting Out Fruits Conference Tour

By: Kate Wildrick, Strategic Advisor / Community Builder 

As the sun gently warmed the rolling hillsides surrounding the KSU Organics Research Facility, I watched as several new and familiar faces entered the building eager to learn and connect with others.  The annual Aquaponics Association’s Conference focused on showcasing how the movement was growing and expanding while seeding new opportunities to generate fruitful results. The theme of “Putting Out Fruits” built on previous conference themes around the industry’s roots and the growth of new science and research, applications of aquaponics and community endeavors.  

With a sold-out venue, the halls were brimming with enthusiasm and conversation.  It soon shifted as people made their way into one of three spaces where sessions focused around STEM / Education; Commercial; and Community topics.  

“It is time for your session,” my colleague reminded me.  

Picking up my notebook, I shuffled through the halls to the Community room.  In an effort to start up the dialogue around all of the wonderful ways in which aquaponics can build community, I noticed that our room had a lot of empty seats that continued to fill. Taking note, we launched into a community discussion with three panelists that included Murray Hallam, Practical Aquaponics; Juli Ogden, The Farm Plan; and Mac McLeon, an innovator of growing aquaponics projects and farms in the prison system.  Together, we opened up the discussion to explore how each of their unique work in education, food safety and workforce development could lend itself to cultivating new opportunities not only for partnership but to also help solve and remove some of the barriers that are holding the industry back.  

During our time together, we made powerful connections.  As each participant shared who they are and what they saw as challenges and opportunities in the aquaponic industry, we shifted the dialogue into looking at how community partnership could help serve as a tool.

Keney Park Sustainability Project in Hartford, CT; Putting Up Shoots Conference Tour

Together, we began to explore the hot topic of food safety. Using the recent ruling with the Canada GAP certification looking to not certify aquaponic farms, Juli Ogden explained the logical solution of simply replacing CanadaGAP with GLOBALG.A.P..  We dove into how community partnerships could play a role in the gathering and sharing of research and information to help educate others inside and outside the aquaponic industry. Food safety touches every aspect of aquaponics from design and construction, workforce training and development and market viability.   In our discussion, it was clear that there was a blatant need for more research; industry standards; and continued training and education to ensure that aquaponics as an industry can continue to grow and expand.

Mr. McLeon shared how his relationships within the prison system could open the door for big community collaboration projects to emerge.  Working within the prisons, research and development could be done in partnership with higher education. Developing a partnership between the two could open up doors to not only gathering information and data, but analysis and evaluation by academics to help advance the industry.  Connections were also made around how workforce training and development can also happen within the prison system to help offenders build new and marketable skills to help them transition after they are released. Training programs, such as Mr. Hallam’s aquaponic curriculum (already nationally accredited by Australia), could help provide a baseline for workforce competencies. As each panelist contributed to what these partnerships could do, others in the audience who had community based aquaponic projects also connected how they could participate in helping offenders transition into paid employment.

Aquaponics at the Mississauga Food Bank in Canada

The second community session focused on a group discussion around what the Aquaponics Association could be doing to help advance and grow community solutions.  There were many takeaways from our time together that had definitely been sparked by the first discussion. The top three included:

  1. Provide more opportunities for other community-based/driven aquaponic models to participate in the conferences.  The suggestions included having a special community priced booth to bring awareness to local, domestic and international endeavors and provide ways for people to get involved.  These packages could help NGO’s, non-profits and benefit companies.
  2. Create a better virtual space and way for people to connect their projects, mission and vision within the aquaponics community to help mobilize resources.
  3. Bring more awareness to the other members in the Aquaponic Association to help grow the Community space.  Suggestions included featuring how partnerships can help solve our growing challenges and also showcase who is working on what issues while communicating how to get involved.

With 2019 coming to a close, I look forward to seeing how these recommendations will help shape, grow and influence our members and our community together.  More importantly, I look forward to seeing more community participants in next year’s conference increase.

Do you have ideas for how the Aquaponics Association can boost Community Aquaponics?