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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

Calling All Artists!!!

Artists are needed to participate in the 2nd Annual Rain Barrel Art Project, hosted by the Regional Storm Water Collaborative and the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. This joint effort continues to educate the community about water conservation and pollution caused by storm water runoff. A great way to reduce that runoff is to harness rainwater in your very own rain barrel. Typically, rain barrels are a drab color, but with the touch of the artists, they come alive with scenes of nature, wildlife, Cincinnati, and many other designs, making them much more appealing to install on the side of your home. Utilizing a rain barrel could save a homeowner up to 1000 gallons of water in just one summer.

A rain barrel painted by Lauren, a Cincinnati Zoo employee, for the 2013 Rain Barrel Benefit Auction.

A rain barrel painted by Lauren, a Cincinnati Zoo employee, for the 2013 Rain Barrel Benefit Auction.

Artists may submit their artwork ideas via SaveLocalWaters.org now through January 25th, 2014. The top 50 entries accepted will be given rain barrels provided by the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati, to bring their proposed artwork to life. The completed barrels will be displayed at our Go Green Garden Exhibit during the month of April 2014. We are thrilled to be hosting the rain barrel event once again. As the Greenest Zoo in America, we are always looking for ways to inspire our community to take action that can impact the environment in positive ways.

The grand finale to the event is the Rain Barrel Art Auction scheduled on April 24th, 2014. The painted rain barrels will be auctioned during our 5th Annual Party for the Planet Earth Day Celebration. Proceeds from the auction will be split between the Zoo and the Regional Storm Water Collaborative to further more education and awareness.

Painted rain barrels on display in the Go Green Garden during Party for the Planet, 2013.

Painted rain barrels on display in the Go Green Garden during Party for the Planet, 2013.

For more information regarding the Rain Barrel Art Project or SaveLocalWaters.org, contact John Nelson, Public Relations Specialist, at 513-772-7645 or visit the website at: http://savelocalwaters.org/rain-barrel-art-project

December 27, 2013   2 Comments

Celebrate America Recycles Day!

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Tomorrow’s America Recycles Day is a nationally recognized day dedicated to celebrating and encouraging more recycling. A program of Keep America beautiful, millions turn out to thousands of events held through the country to learn more about recycling and what they can do to help. The #GreenestZooInAmerica is hosting our annual America Recycles Day field trip, engaging almost 400 elementary students in activities that promote the three R’s – reducing, reusing, and recycling. These activities make the connection between wildlife, conservation, and waste reduction, encouraging students to take positive actions in their daily lives. By recycling as much as we can, we will save energy, conserve natural resources, divert waste from landfills, and create jobs.

In addition to Friday’s field trip, the Cincinnati Zoo will continue celebrating America Recycles Day by participating in Keep Cincinnati Beautiful’s “One Stop Drop” on Saturday, November 16. Residents are encouraged to bring their non-curbside recyclable items free of charge to the Whole Foods Parking lot in Rookwood between 10am and 2pm. These items include e-waste, plastic grocery bags, plastic #5’s such as butter or yogurt containers, and used writing utensils. A full list of accepted items can be found on their website.

Cohen Recycling, the electronics recycling partner of the #GreenestZooInAmerica, will also be hosting an e-waste drive with the Bengals on Saturday, November 16 from 10am-1pm in the lot at Longworth Hall. This e-waste collection event will allow Bengals fans to recycle their unwanted electronics in a responsible way, keeping harmful materials out of landfill and securely protecting your data. A small fee will be applied to recycle CRT monitors ($5), and tube/ projector TVs (under 32” are $10, over 32” are $20). All other electronics are recycled free of charge. A list of accepted items can be found on their website.

Dave Lapham, Margus Hunt and a teammate or 2 will be on hand for autographs and pictures between 11:30 and 12:30 during the event.  Plus, everyone recycling items can also enter for a chance to win many great prizes.

One lucky recycler will win VIP experience with club seats and sideline passes when the Bengals host the Ravens on December 29. Other prizes include a meet and greet with Dave Lapham plus dinner at Holy Grail during his radio show December 23, autographed footballs and Bengals Pro-shop gear.

Join the Cincinnati Zoo in celebrating America Recycles Day! If you visit the Zoo this Friday, look for the field trip activities throughout the Zoo. All are welcome to participate and learn more about recycling. This weekend, go to one of the drop off events to keep harmful items out of the landfill!

November 14, 2013   5 Comments