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Lessons Learned from a Year of Aquaponics: Part 1, How It All Began

By Guest Blogger, Scott Beuerlein, Horticulturist

I have to admit, I took on the aquaponics project with some trepidation. Years back, I had flirted a little with permaculture. On ¾ of an acre of prime Anderson Township suburbia, my wife and I had made a valiant stab at going off the grid. Between a large organic vegetable garden, a mini-orchard, a wood burning stove,  wine-making, maple sugaring, and more, our little homestead of a pair of parents, kids, border collies, cars, and jobs, we made a fairly good go of being self-sufficient. It was a challenge. It was fun. Most of all, it was exhausting. I eventually burned out. We moved on. My restless mind drifted on to other things. Yet, in moments of weakness and nostalgia, I sometimes found myself pining for a more difficult life—the kind that only sustainable home agriculture can provide. Inexplicably, despite knowing what I knew, I was ready for a new challenge. Maybe this was a weird new twist on the old mid-life crisis? So when the aquaponics project presented itself, I was tempted. Really tempted.  But one more thing gave me yet more pause. There were rumors around that all the Zoo higher ups, and all but three of the Zoo lower downs, had what was reported as delusional expectations for this thing. As a consequence, lying awake at night in a cold sweat and thinking about it, the specter of failure loomed large not only as an option, but as a likely and spectacular one. But in the end, with all this in mind, and fully aware that I didn’t have enough time to take this on; I did what I always do and proceeded anyway.

The fellas that helped get the aquaponics system started at the Zoo.

The fellas that helped get the aquaponics system started at the Zoo.

First thing, I sought out experienced, wizened old hands who had been there and done that—the stereotypical weather worn, decrepit souls who had seen it all over many hard years and would recount their pearls of wisdom in anachronistically worded , enigmatic fables, riddles, and parables.  But I quickly learned that no such people exist. Aquaponics is too new. Way too new. The wizened old hands are usually kids who left Americorps two months ago. They smile with cherubic faces, spew enthusiasm, contain not a fiber of cynicism, couldn’t embellish a story to save their lives, and sport names like Josh or Skippy. Moreover, when they recall anything, it always begins with, “Last year…”. The most common phrase in aquaponics circles is: “I was wondering that too.”The second is: “Chad’s parents are out of town. We’re having a party!” It’s not much of an exaggeration to state that everyone is making this up as they go along.  Eventually, I did fall in with a pack of aquaponics geeks who were starting a system along with people from Cincinnati Parks for a Krohn Conservatory exhibit. This group, absurdly old for this sort of thing, consisted of Pete West, a retired engineer who was starting a sustainable agriculture company called Self-Sustaining Enterprises; Designer and Landscaper Adam Wyman of Elements Pro. Kevin Savage, a science teacher from Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy:  and Dan Divelbiss, Chief Growing Officer and Founder of Waterfields, LLC, a company growing hydroponic vegetables in Price Hill.  Tracy Fryburger from Cincinnati Parks also generously gave advice and encouragement.

The tremendous help these folks provided simply cannot be over stated. They helped with everything from sourcing of equipment and supplies to testing the waters (literally). They came early. They came often. They returned all my calls, answered my questions , and never charged a dime. These were all genius level guys who showed up with laptops, expensive hand held meters, thick catalogs, thicker glasses, mysterious texts, a buzz word rapport amongst each other, inside jokes, and degrees like “Engineering.” I could’ve been intimidated, but I wasn’t.  My Dad is a genius level engineer of that ilk, and I’ve been smarter than him ever since I can remember. Sure, unlike me, these guys could calculate themselves out of a paper bag, but can they think like a fish? Or a plant? I can. That’s my genius. Ultimately, it turned out those genius guys’ abilities to read technical texts and do math combined with my knowledge and skills from a long, varied, and checkered past walking all manner of plants through the valley of the shadow of death made for a pretty darn good team.

In house, credit must be also given to the Zoo’s crack maintenance staff. Need a bench to put 300 pound tanks of water onto? Give Terry Jackson 4 ½ hours and a pile of stainless steel scrap  and he will build one that will last a thousand years. From our Aquatics Department, David Wardlow knows literally everything. It might take a day or two to find him, because he is in so much demand, but track him down, drop your problem on him, give him a minute or two to ruminate, and, bang, out comes a great solution.  He answered my entire myriad of weird, little pump, filtration, and plumbing questions with surprisingly little cussing. Fia Cifuentes from our Sustainability Program, folks in the Animal Department, and many others also provided support. I’m ashamed to admit that it came as something of a surprise that the Zoo is a ridiculous embarrassment of riches if you’re trying to do something that involves plants, animals, and water. Finally, special recognition must go to all those smiling, alluring, beautiful sirens (and Chad) from our PR Department who pounced upon me one day while I was quietly eating at the café and against every last bit of my better judgment talked me into doing an aquaponics rap video. Pat Story, our video sorcerer, then managed to turn what I was certain was the most unusable footage in video history from a pile of vile into something that almost went viral.

Credit also goes to Chef Brian McCorkell from the Base Camp Café. Since he is always here and never leaves, he took on the role of feeding the fish and checking on the system on a daily basis. Things have gone a lot better and smoother under his ever steady hand.

Chef Brian harvesting basil for the Base Camp Cafe.

Chef Brian harvesting basil for the Base Camp Cafe.

Last but certainly not least, none of this would have been possible were it not for the generosity of The Woodward Family Charity Foundation, which funded the greenhouse and equipment. The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is incredibly grateful to them, as are our many guests! One of the most rewarding things about this system has been the high level of interest shown by visitors, and the aquaponics greenhouse has become a popular stop on our ever expanding list of visitor engagement opportunities.

Stay tuned for two more exciting episodes in the near future. You’ll find the next installment, “How It Works In Spite of Everything” especially riveting, and the final chapter “Lessons We Learned” will make you laugh, cry, and build your own system!

July 22, 2014   1 Comment

Meet Primate Keeper Eric High

Contributor: Ron Evans

Continuing our celebration of National Zoo Keeper Week, we’d like you to meet Eric High, Head Keeper in the Zoo’s Primate Department. Eric has worked at the Zoo for almost 15 years, and he has an incredible work ethic. He sets a “high” bar (pun intended) for his keepers, and leads by strong example.

Zoo Keeper Eric High with baby gorilla Gladys.

Zoo Keeper Eric High with baby gorilla Gladys.

Eric is acutely focused on the myriad of Zoo and departmental missions and goals that have been presented to him, and is instrumental in their development, execution and long term management. Eric was key in facilitating some of the first examples of many programs we practice zoo-wide and are common today. For example, Eric helped usher one of our very first animal department comprehensive operant conditioning programs with gorillas in the early 2000s. It still stands as one of the best in the Zoo.

Additionally, he helped develop and manage one of the very first advertised keeper chats (outside of the Cat, Bird and Elephant shows) at the Zoo, complete with microphones, which at the time scared half the keepers to death to use. He knew it was important to the Zoo’s mission and that it would help set the bar for other departments.

Finally, Eric managed the complicated scheduling of staff working 24/7 during the very challenging Gladys surrogacy project and kept the rest of the Primate Center needs on track while many resources had to be diverted for Gladys.

Eric is one of the rock solid foundation keepers that allow us to maintain current programs while supporting efforts to enhance and grow new ones. If we could clone a bunch of him, we could run this Zoo with about half the staff. The productivity would go way, way up!

July 22, 2014   No Comments

It’s National Zoo Keeper Week! Meet Keeper Kim Klosterman.

Contributors: Jackie Bray, Jenna Wingate, & Wendy Rice

Happy National Zoo Keeper Week! During the week beginning on the third Sunday in July each year, zoos nationwide honor animal care professionals and the work they do in animal care, conservation, and education. There are approximately 6,000 animal care professionals in the United States. Throughout this week, we’d like to introduce you to several of our outstanding keepers here at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Kim and Kea

Zoo Keeper Kim Klosterman with a Kea

Meet Aviculture Keeper, Kim Klosterman
Kim works as a keeper in our aviculture department. Her dedication and work ethic are inspiring, and her devotion to the animals in her care is evident in all that she does. Kim goes out of her way to make sure her animals receive the highest standard of care, even if it means late nights or extra work. She often builds nest boxes and special enrichment items for the animals on her own time. And she is always positive, passionate and polite.

Though Kim’s knowledge and understanding of aviculture is already extensive, she spends many hours researching best practices in husbandry, disease management and reproduction. By implementing the most up-to-date practices, Kim has been integral in several important breakthroughs in the reproduction and health care management of rare species.

Female kea

Female kea

In addition to her role as keeper, Kim is a passionate and productive warrior for the in-situ conservation of several avian species, most notably the kea (a parrot from New Zealand). Through grant writing, keeper chats, kea encounters and collaborations with other organizations and zoo departments, she has helped raise thousands of dollars that have made significant positive impacts on wild kea populations. Kim’s leadership has dramatically increased U.S. support for kea conservation and has helped form international collaborations that will likely change the direction of future captive management policies of the species. She is also largely responsible for our incredible new interactive kea exhibit that is receiving national and international attention. This exhibit sets a new standard for up-close, personal interactions with the animals and increases awareness and financial support for conservation initiatives.

 

July 21, 2014   2 Comments