The Ripple Effect: How Aquaponic Conferences Grow Community and Remove Barriers
By Kate Wildrick
My name is Kate Wildrick, Co-Founder / Paradigm Shifter of Ingenuity Innovation Center. For those of you who were able to attend the 2017 Putting Down Roots Conference in Portland, Oregon, I served as one of the conference co-chairs. Since then, I have had an active role as a strategic advisor to the Aquaponics Association. My intention in writing this article is to share my personal, first hand experience of how attending an aquaponic conference can really serve as a powerful catalyst for building community, knowledge and resources. This is my story.
My business focuses on creating sustainable solutions and sharing them using an open-source platform. Aquaponics is one of the many things that we do. In 2012, my husband and I struggled our way through a mountain of (dis)information on the internet to find the best way to build an aquaponics system. After moving onto 20 acres of land in St. Helens, Oregon on a lease to buy option (this is important later in my story), we set up a 1,500 square foot greenhouse and began constructing our system based off of Murray Hallam’s CHOP2 (Constant Height, One Pump) System. At the time, I was working at a food manufacturing facility. With access to lots of food grade containers (also known as Intermittent Bulk Containers or IBC’s), we created a system working with resources we could repurpose and “upcycle.” This also included building with a lot of reclaimed wood.
As we built our system row by row, our friends told others. Before we knew it, we were hosting regular tours and helping people get introduced into how aquaponics works. We made every mistake in the book and shared what we learned to help others save money, time and frustration. Many encouraged us to go into designing and building systems and growing commercially, but my husband and I knew that we lacked the knowledge. Nonetheless, we kept at it. We made new mistakes, met new people and kept expanding.
In 2014, we learned that Murray Hallam would be speaking at the Aquaponics Association’s Conference in San Jose, CA. Too broke to attend, another colleague suggested we reach out to him and invite him to speak at our center. He made an introduction, and before I knew it, I was talking to Murray on Skype. He accepted our invitation. With less than 30 days to promote the event, we somehow managed to pull it off. We sold every last seat!
Given the huge success, Murray decided that he wanted to return each year (which he did) to do his four day master class at our center. The wealth of knowledge and connections made at these events were simply phenomenal. We learned even more about system design, commercial production, pest management and nutrient deficiencies. Not only were we able to learn from Murray, but we connected with others who had small and large farms all over the world. We were able to discover the challenges and opportunities they were personally facing. It was comforting to know that we were not alone in pioneering this emerging green industry.
In 2016, I attended the Austin, TX Aquaponics Association’s Conference as a speaker. I had submitted a proposal to share what we had learned first hand about leveraging aquaponics as a community builder. This was the first conference where I was able to meet many of my national colleagues. It was so exciting to meet each of these people who we had been following on YouTube and social media. I returned home with many new connections and a bigger perspective on what was happening on the national and global fronts with the industry. Best of all, I was starting to connect the dots on how to position what we were doing to meet the growing demand of people needing access to living examples of various aquaponic designs and business and community models.
In summer 2017, Brian Filipowich (now current Chairman of the Aquaponics Association), reached out to me to get my thoughts on hosting the Association’s annual conference in Portland. We had met at the Austin conference, and we shared a lot of passion for cultivating the aquaponics community. I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to bring some of the cutting edge leaders and pioneers to the Pacific Northwest, as I knew many in my network would benefit and see how this is a real industry and it is not a fad. Knowing I had to step up my whole event planning game to the next level, Brian and I set off to find a venue and get promoting.
This event was a huge blessing for me. At the time, my family and I had been dealing with a devastating blow to our business and life. We chose to leave the beautiful land we were on when we found out our friend and investor had no interest in honoring our initial agreements. (Serving for 5 years on our advisory group, she watched us try to secure the land. The high risk venture of “aquaponics” and a business model that had never been done before left us with few conventional options.) Having no desire to be bound by values that did not align to ours, we uprooted our whole life in 45 days and moved into a one bedroom basement at our friends’ house. Here my husband, mother-in-law, two year old son and I regrouped and wondered what new things would come our way.
The 2017 Putting Down Roots Conference became my sole focus. With a limited amount of time to put together such major event, I knew it was going to take a lot to pull this off. As the schedule came together, I began to revisit connections who had come through our center along with an Aquaponic Meetup Group we run to promote the conference. On the state level, we belonged to an aquaculture task force that was established to bring together public and private organizations to strengthen and develop the aquaculture industry in Oregon. We served as the voice for aquaponic industry. Often not taken seriously, we knew that this was our opportunity to show the State of Oregon what is possible. So, we gifted the Oregon Aquaculture Association a table at the conference to hear the speakers and connect with attendees.
When the conference happened, I was so excited. Even though our business and home had been uprooted,
what was clear was that we had very strong roots in our community that aquaponics had helped us create. During the event, we were able to bring attendees on a tour of an aquaponic R&D center that we were helping build for a new business venture, Wind River Produce, in the Columbia River Gorge. As with any build, we got to learn how to make things better. Next, we went on a second tour to a food innovation center, The Redd, that serves as a business incubator and explored Live Local Organic, an urban application of an indoor aquaponic facility. The owner, Joel Kelly, had come through our center many years ago hoping to find more information on how to do commercial aquaponics. The tours were helped tell a story of how aquaponics could bridge the urban and rural divide, which has been a major discussion in the agriculture industry on a local and national level.
We also heard the heartbreaking stories of other aquapreunuers that had faced similar challenges that we had encountered. We were not alone in dealing with the reality that there were a lack of resources to help grow this industry. It dawned on me that by telling our story, that we could give permission for others to share theirs. Together, our voices could be heard.
After the conference, we took a short break only to find that we had ignited something big. Beyond seeing an increase in our consultation services, new doors began opening up. The Oregon Food Bank wanted to collaborate and bring aquaponics to their headquarter location. Discussions around aquaponic training for veterans and people of color began, and funds were sourced to build systems. Other non-profits and for-profits sought to collaborate and see how they could get more aquaponic farms and community applications going on a local level. The conversation had shifted. Instead of “making the case” for why aquaponics could solve a lot of issues, people and organizations began were now asking what they could do to help grow the industry.
Based on this feedback, we began focusing our efforts on developing pathways that could funnel this energy in a way that would be beneficial for all. Given that we had nothing to lose and everything to gain, we decided to develop an aquaponic co-op venture that would help establish standards, best practices and workforce training to grow the industry. Working with Murray Hallam and his student Arvind Venkat from Waterfarmers, we decided to expand the Wind River Produce model to serve as a way to grow and develop farms and farmers in the Pacific Northwest while alleviating the barriers that many have had to go through. Working off of a solid and replicable commercial farm model and training curriculum, we then could adapt these processes and designs to integrate with the local food system and culture.
One unexpected, yet incredible surprise of hosting the Putting Down Roots Conference was the response that we received from Clint Bentz, the President of the Oregon Aquaculture Association. After attending the conference, he was absolutely ecstatic as to what aquaponics could do for the State of Oregon. After meeting and relaying on what he learned to several of the task force members, the association asked me if I would be willing to help them put on an Oregon version of the aquaponics conference. Working with another co-chair and aquaponic farmer, Michael Hasey of Oregon’s largest aquaponic farm, The Farming Fish, we set out on another short deadline to showcase what was happening with aquaponics on a local level. The conference took place the weekend of June 23rd, 2018, and drew more than 70 people, including Oregon’s 1st District State Representative, David Brock Smith, who extended his support for growing the state’s aquaculture and aquaponics industries. Here, the pioneers of the Oregon aquaponic movement shared their organization’s vision, challenges and desire to meet the growing demand for high quality, organic produce.
Reflecting on this conference, I still get emotional. With the exception of a few speakers, I knew most everyone’s story, challenges, and triumphs. I was in a very unique position as the Master of Ceremonies to help ask the questions and highlight the opportunities for collaboration to shift the industry on a local level. Like my own experience at the Austin conference, many of these speakers had not ever met one another before or knew of their projects or farms. Together we told the collective story through our own stories. We shared how we had moved the mark and explained what was needed to keep going. What happened at the end of the conference then took my breath away. People who attended began offering up resources. Business planning, CPA services, land, supplies, financial assistance were just a few I can recall. I remember looking at the speakers who were still there and smiling. We had brought our local community together to help remove the barriers. We had even managed to raise another $1,000 to help the STEM students who presented at the Putting Down Roots conference fund their program in our local schools.
When you participate in an aquaponic conference, you give energy and support for those who are the front lines. Your presence demonstrates that this is a growing movement, and one that is not going away. You may never know how your interactions impact others and inspire innovation. You may not realize how your words can encourage new results. My hope is that by sharing my story you can see how the ripples can come back in very unexpected and awe inspiring ways. It is through these events that I find my inspiration to keep going.