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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   No Comments

Celebrate Endangered Species Day!

Declared by U.S. Congress in 2006, every third Friday in May is Endangered Species Day, a day to celebrate and protect our wildlife and wild places. Here at the Cincinnati Zoo, however, every day is Endangered Species Day. We work tirelessly to make emotional connections between people and wildlife, raise conservation awareness and promote ways everyone can take action to make a difference for wildlife.

Want to do something today to help save wildlife in honor of Endangered Species Day? How about helping us protect elephants?

Sabu, our male Asian elephant (Photo: David Jenike)

Sabu, our male Asian elephant (Photo: David Jenike)

As a coalition partner with more than 125 institutions, the Zoo works with the 96 Elephants campaign to protect elephants from poaching for their ivory tusks in the wild. The United States is the second largest ivory consumer nation behind China. While the recent strengthening of federal restrictions on the sale of ivory is a critical step towards ending the illegal ivory trade in the United States, state regulations are also necessary.

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Join the effort by taking the pledge at www.96elephants.org to not to buy or sell ivory and to support a moratorium on ivory products in our country.

You can also participate in a letter writing campaign. On World Elephant Day, August 12, the campaign hopes to deliver 96,000 letters and drawings from people around the country to state legislators in support of a ban on the sale of ivory by state. Over the next couple of months, Zoo guests can draw or color pictures and write letters expressing what elephants mean to them at our Elephant Wild Discover Zone. We will collect the letters and drawings to deliver them to Governor Kasich on World Elephant Day. Be sure to stop by next time you’re at the Zoo!

If you can’t make it to Zoo, you can download the letter template from our website here, and send it to me in time for the August 12 delivery to the governor.

And remember, just by coming to the Zoo, you are helping us save endangered species every day. So come on out and play!

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May 16, 2014   No Comments

From the Passenger Pigeon to Conservation at the Cincinnati Zoo

Guest blogger: Sophie Williams, Advanced Inquiry Program (AIP) student and consultant on the Passenger Pigeon Memorial renovation

The reason we study the story of the passenger pigeon is not to be sad about its loss, but to be aware. Humans have a great capacity to do good, but we also have the ability to exhaust seemingly endless riches. It is important to recognize the impact we as humans can have on our environment, and take steps to conserve natural resources, both species and habitats, while we can.

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is at the cutting-edge of conservation research and action. From genetic research conducted at the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) to the Zoo’s Go Green initiatives you can participate in both at the Zoo and at home, the Cincinnati Zoo is committed to saving endangered plants and animals from extinction in North America and around the world.  Here are just a few examples.

Sumatran Rhino Conservation

The Sumatran rhinoceros is one of the most endangered animals on the planet, with only about 100 individuals left. CREW’s Signature Sumatran Rhino Project has been a leader in captive breeding efforts for this critically endangered animal since 1997. In 2001, the first Sumatran rhino calf to be born in captivity in 112 years was born at the Cincinnati Zoo, thanks to CREW’s breakthrough research. Since then, two other calves have been born at the Zoo, and in 2007, the Zoo’s first-born rhino calf, Andalas, was relocated to the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) on the island of Sumatra to serve as the catalyst for a breeding program in the species’ native land. A few years later, Andalas’s mate, Ratu, gave birth to a healthy male calf, a huge success for the species!

In addition to its leadership role in the Sumatran rhino captive breeding program, CREW scientists partner with conservation organization Rhino Global Partnerships to protect Sumatran rhinos in the wild by helping to support Rhino Protection Units. These units are trained to protect the rhinos from poachers, the greatest threat to the species. Furthermore, financial support and CREW staff expertise are provided to facilitate the captive breeding program on Sumatra. CREW’s Signature Sumatran Rhino Project, with its international collaboration, is conservation work at its finest.

Sumatran rhino with baby (Photo: Dave Jenike)

Sumatran rhino with baby (Photo: Dave Jenike)

Gorilla Conservation

Western lowland gorillas are critically endangered in the wild, with less than 175,000 individuals. Due primarily to habitat destruction caused by logging, mineral mining, and agricultural expansion, wild gorilla numbers continue to shrink. The bushmeat trade—the killing of wild animals to be used as human food—is also a major threat to the western lowland gorilla population throughout the Central African rainforests. Over 1,000 gorillas are illegally poached for the bushmeat trade each year.

The Cincinnati Zoo supports wild gorilla conservation efforts such as the Mbeli Bai Study. The Mbeli Bai Study is the longest running research being done with wild western lowland gorillas. Through research, local education programs, publications, and documentaries, the Mbeli Bai Study is raising international awareness for gorillas and their struggle for survival.

Gorillas in Congo (Photo: Thomas Breuer)

Gorillas in Congo (Photo: Thomas Breuer)

African Lion Conservation

Another way the Zoo contributes to species conservation worldwide is through support of global initiatives to protect wildlife and minimize human-wildlife conflict. The Zoo provides funding to support Rebuilding the Pride, a community-based conservation program that combines tradition and modern technology to restore a healthy lion population while reducing the loss of livestock to lions in Kenya’s South Rift Valley.

Local Maasai research assistants track the movement of both livestock and lions in an effort to understand seasonal movements and identify conflict hotspots. Some of the lions have been fitted with Global Positioning System (GPS) collars for better tracking. The collars transmit four locations a day to a central server, giving detailed information on the exact movement of the lions. Knowing where the prides are lets herders know where to avoid grazing their livestock.

The program also deploys a Conflict Response Team to mitigate any conflicts that arise between people and lions. When herders must move through areas with lions, they call on community game scouts to accompany them for extra protection. The team also helps find and rescue lost livestock that would have otherwise fallen victim to predation.

Thanks to these efforts, lion populations in the region are growing. Once down to a low of about 10 known lions in the area, the population is now estimated to be nearly 70. The prides have been producing cubs and new lions are moving in from surrounding areas. The Rebuilding the Pride program has greatly contributed to the robustness of the lion population, minimized human-wildlife conflict, and become a strong community-based conservation program.

Lions in Kenya (Photo: Lily Maynard)

Lions in Kenya (Photo: Lily Maynard)

To read the other posts in this series, click here. Join us in April as we celebrate Earth Day and community activism!

March 17, 2014   3 Comments