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Aquaponics Skeptic Turned Believer Hopes to Bring Growing Method to Homes and Urban Areas Across America

August 1, 2012 |

Photo: Courtesy of Sylvia Bernstein

In an emerging field like aquaponics, there are few who can call themselves experts. Sylvia Bernstein is one who can. In addition to authoring Aquaponic Gardening: A Step by Step Guide to Growing Fish and Vegetables Together, which has been in Amazon’s top ten gardening books since it came out in October, she is the founder and current vice chairman of the Aquaponics Association and the president and founder of The Aquaponic Source. The Aquaponic Source is a resource for everything aquaponics, from systems and supplies to information, tips, fish and an online community.

Before founding The Aquaponic Source, Bernstein was an aquaponics skeptic. As the vice president of marketing and product development for AeroGrow International, the makers of the AeroGarden, she was heavily involved with hydroponics. One of her projects involved coming up with an organic nutrient solution for seed tips, but her team was having a hard time finding one that “wasn’t incredibly stinky or incredibly expensive or didn’t work very well,” she says.

“We were constantly reading industry news and literature and we came across aquaponics. When I first heard about it, I was hugely skeptical. You couldn’t tell me that it could be that simple…I pooh poohed it.”

A less resistant coworker started an aquaponics system in his basement, and eventually convinced Bernstein to check it out.

“Six months later I quit my job as the VP of marketing and I left them to start The Aquaponic Source,” she says. “My big focus, our real mission is around bringing this way of growing to homes in North America.”

In addition to requiring less land and water than traditional soil gardening, aquaponics provides a solution to the pescatarian’s dilemma, says Bernstein.

“I think one of the problems in our worldwide food production that flummoxed me the most is around fish,” says Bernstein. She says that she and her family, who are all pescatarians, wanted to eat fish, but were having a hard time doing so sustainably.

“The dilemma with fish these days is that we’ve got such a problem with wild caught fish, and yet farm raised fish is generally not sustainably grown,” she says. “There are all sorts of things going into the feed. A lot of aquaculture facilities are still polluting their areas. There are a lot of problems with fish right now that we really think of as a healthy food. It’s not so healthy for the environment.”

A home aquaponics system, though, changes that. You can grow completely organically – in fact, you have to, since pesticides would harm the fish. And you don’t have to worry about mercury or other toxins showing up in your system – you control exactly what your fish consume.

Says Bernstein, “There’s no weeds. There’s no watering. There’s no fertilizing. Once you get everything set up, it’s an incredibly easy way to grow your food. It takes way less work than soil gardening.”

“At the very least, your fish are going to pay for their own feed,” says Bernstein. “Your fish are going to pay for themselves, meaning that you have a free source of fertilizer. You’re using less than a tenth of the water, fertilizer is free and [you’re] not having to get in there and till and weed. You can actually grow a much larger area for much less labor. Once you get past the initial building cost, it’s more cost effective.”

Sylvia Bernstein, Founder and current Vice Chairman of the Aquaponics Association

Bernstein hopes that just as the local and organic gardening movements sparked an interest in where our food comes from, and the rising popularity of raising backyard chickens has tuned people in to the plight of factory chickens, aquaponics will draw scrutiny to the aquaculture industry.

“I think that getting home gardeners involved in aquaponics is a way of making us all aware of what goes into raising fish,” she says.

It’s already attracting people to farming.

Says Bernstein, “You have a lot of folks that are looking for a career change. They’re pretty unsatisfied with what they’re doing. They want to be doing something that’s productive, that’s life-giving. Growing healthy food in a sustainable way really speaks to people. I see a huge trend of people going into small family farms, into aquaponics. It works great for a couple to create their own family business and supply local restaurants.”

Bernstein says that since aquaponics is still in the early stages, it works best on a smaller scale. There are serious challenges, such as pest control and the sensitivity of the plants and fish to seasonal changes that need to be worked out before aquaponics can be pursued on a larger scale.

“[I see] no reason why it won’t follow the same path as hydroponics. But when you get up to that level, it needs to be a more mature technology. It’s still kind of on the new side, 10 to 15 years old. That’s about 15 years behind where hydroponics is. One of the challenges of growing is it has to be organic. You just have to take it a whole level deeper as far as your pest control program.”

While growing fish in one’s backyard may seem like a daunting task, Bernstein says that it doesn’t have to be.

“Don’t get intimidated because there are pipes and pumps involved,” she says. “One thing that people sometimes are intimidated by is, if you aren’t a handy, DIY, Home Depot-shopping kind of person, you still absolutely can do this. We sell kits, we sell full blown systems – all of these things are designed for the person who isn’t really a DIY-er.”

For now, Bernstein’s hopes for aquaponics and The Aquaponic Source are modest.

“One thing I’d hope to see is for people everywhere to know what aquaponics is. If you even type in the word aquaponics, it comes up as a spelling error. For it to become known enough that it’s not a spelling error,” she laughs. “I really think that I can see the notion of setting up your own system or buying a pre-fabricated kit and growing your own food in your yard becoming the norm as opposed to the exception.”

She also says she thinks aquaponics would be a great addition to the classroom – kids could see biology, physics and chemistry at work in an ecosystem. “I would love to see an aquaponics system in every school across the country. It’s a great learning tool,” she says.

“From an urban agriculture standpoint, I see aquaponics as being the obvious solution for growing food in an urban environment,” says Bernstein. “Think about the middle of downtown Detroit and you’ve got very little agriculture going on and lots of land not being used that could easily be converted into plant growing systems. That’s really where I see things growing. I don’t see aquaponics replacing our current agriculture system, it’s not a way to grow large scale grain crops, but for lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, I just think there’s no better way to grow that stuff and to grow it locally and close to the people who are going to eat it. That’s the way it needs to be.”


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