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Wisconsin Public-Private Partnership Builds New Aquaponics Innovation Center

Wisconsin Public-Private Partnership Builds New Aquaponics Innovation Center

June 16, 2015 |

Replication Systems of the UWSP-Aquaponics Innovation Center

Replication Systems of the UWSP-Aquaponics Innovation Center | Courtesy UWSP-Aquaponics Innovation Center

A new Aquaponics Innovation Center (AIC) in Montello, Wisconsin is the result of a public-private partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) and Nelson and Pade, Inc.

The facility is designed to provide a space for aquaponics research and education. Construction on the 4,800 square foot space started in August 2014 and finished in early 2015. Faculty, students, and staff will use the AIC’s six separate aquaponic systems to conduct research.

A $677,500 grant from the University of Wisconsin System’s Economic Development Incentive Grant program funds the AIC.

The AIC has been received with enthusiasm from university faculty and local dignitaries. “The response has been fantastic,” says Rebecca Nelson, co-founder of Nelson & Pade, a Montello-based aquaponics system supplier. In the Montello community, “people have been very excited to have a branch of the university in their town, ” says  Rebecca Nelson, one of the owners and founders of the company.

The partnership began four years ago when Nelson and Pade, a company with more than 20 years experience in aquaponics, approached the University of Wisconsin about offering aquaponics courses. Training opportunities were not keeping pace with the demands of a rapidly expanding industry and “we needed to see a university embrace this discipline and start offering classes,” says Nelson.

Nelson, her company partner John Pade and UWSP Professor of Fisheries Biology Chris Hartley worked together to develop th U.S.’s first semester-long college aquaponics course in the United States, which the University began offering in 2012.

“There have been compromises on both sides,” Nelson says of the partnership, “but the results have been just extraordinary.”

The University now offers three aquaponics courses and a Professional Aquaponics Certificate for the completion of an aquaponics curriculum. Nelson and Pade’s status as adjunct professors allows students of classes at their business campus to earn university credit, and UWSP students have opportunities to intern at Nelson and Pade as well as other aquaponic businesses. The various education opportunities have been highly successful.

“UW-Stevens Point graduates are finding employment in aquaponics immediately upon graduation,” says Hartleb, who has taken on the role of director of the AIC.

The partnership also led to the creation of the International Aquaponics Society and the first International Aquaponics Conference in 2013.

The appeals of aquaponics, which combines hydroponic plant cultivation with aquaculture of fish or other aquatic organisms, are many, according to Hartleb.

“It’s scalable,” he says, so “you can start out with a hobby or home system and grow to a commercial size facility.” Fish protein and the vegetables add up to “a complete meal” with a low resource cost—aquaponic systems use just ten percent of the water a commercial field cropping system uses.

On top of that, “food from an aquaponics system, if grown locally, is fresher and tastier and provides comfort to consumers who know where their food is coming from,” Hartleb says.

Nelson describes the AIC as the “next logical step” in the company’s partnership with UWSP. “There are new directions to look,” says Nelson, to address “the needs of a growing industry.”

With so few other aquaponics research centers operating, there’s much to learn. The AIC is beginning production trials with walleye, a cold-water fish, instead of the industry-standard tilapia.

They will work with a UWSP microbiologist to study the complex beneficial bacterial ecosystems that establish in aquaponics tanks, and look at ways to support those systems. They have also talked with an ethnobotanist about the possibility of growing medicinal plants, and an entomologist interested in studying possible pests and natural control methods for aquaponics systems.

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