Cyclic Learning at the Sweetwater Foundation

How Barrel-Ponics sets an exponential Learning Curve in Milwaukee, WI

I started volunteering at the Sweetwater Foundation in October, 2010, in an attempt to learn more about aquaponics and do my part to promote urban agriculture. I was soon approached by a former student of mine, Nick Montezon, with a printed copy of Travis Hugheyís 103 page Barrel-Ponics DIY manual. I had never built anything like this before, but the design appeared simple enough. I could figure out the intricacies of plant:fish:water ratios, temperature, nitrogen conversions, and pH balancing as I went along. I hesitated when he suggested I take the project on with a group of students visiting Sweetwater Foundation on a weekly basis, but figured I would simply learn right along side the people I was working with. So began the best cycle of teaching and learning I have been a part of. Five fields of learning, three designs of one system, 7 months, and 23 students later, a model is emerging that links teachers and learners of all ages and walks of life.

Texas Bufkin Christian Academy
The first school I worked with was the Texas Bufkin Christian Academy. They had a group of about 15 students that visited Sweetwater once a week to engage in projects around the farm, from composting to artistry to construction. Students in the Barrel-Ponics group worked with me to cut barrels, build a frame, and run PVC plumbing that circulated water throughout this system. They learned basic carpentry skills and engaged fellow students in artistically presenting the project to others via drawing, pictures, and journaling. Time to work on the system was short, and the idea was not well established in my head on how to build curriculum around this project. Still, the students were able to at least participate in every step of the building process, if not complete each phase themselves. In the end, the students in this group were to bring the skills and concepts they learned back to their school where they would hopefully build a barrel-ponics system of their own.

Shorewood New Horizons Charter School
One of the first schools visiting Sweetwater on a regular basis was the Shorewood New Horizons Charter School. Visiting twice a week, they were able to work hand in hand with the Texas Bufkin Christian Academy to build Sweetwaterís first Barrel-Ponics system. Rather than gear their gained knowledge and skills toward construction of their own system, New Horizons focused on community outreach, cross curricular development of agricultural projects, and teaching other schools that visited Sweetwater. Now in their second semester at Sweetwater, these students lead tours for other schools, assist in planning and construction of raised bed gardens, and show their stuff at workshops. They buy into the projects they take on because they have experienced the value of what they are doing. They are led by a visionary teacher and curriculum writer, Bohdan Nedlisky, and now have the confidence to lead others.

Groundwork Milwaukee
The richness of partnerships shows through with Sweetwaterís collaboration with Groundwork Milwaukee. Groundwork is a small nonprofit that enlists the help of paid youth workers, community members, and other organizations to remediate vacant and abandoned lands and enhance the quality of local water ways. One of the most powerful tools they use to do this is the introduction of community gardens into economically challenged neighborhoods. A core of student workers called the Green Team, paid through the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board, works on these projects. GWMís Green Team recently completed work on a replica of the original Barrel-Ponics system that was modified to function in a colder environment, this being the unheated historic Carriage House at the former Isenberg Estate, which now houses the administration for the Center for Veterans Issues (CVI). In their Barrel-Ponics project, the Green Team incorporated a bell siphon system and external biofilter into the new design. They had the chance to present their creation to many different people, including a group of veterans knows as VUCS (Veterans for Community Service), from which they recruited 10 volunteers to help build a new system at CVI. Thus, the Green Team learned construction skills and the basics of aquaponics, gained experience in public speaking, helped work out the bugs of a new mini system, and they got paid to do it.

Center for Veterans Issues
A small group of veterans participating in the Veterans for Community Service (the VUCS program) is now completing their system, which serves as a learning piece from which they can explore many opportunities. They plan to work with students from Texas Bufkin on the schoolís own design, expand upon their own system built in the Carriage House at the Isenberg Estate, and perhaps implement systems in various places throughout the city. The value of a project like this is especially great to this group of people. In the course of this program, they work together in a group to solve problems associated with the system, develop ownership of the work of project they are planning to teach to others, take pride in raising their own food, and learn skills that lend themselves to employability in the green jobs sector. Most importantly, however, is the connection they forge to a life giving system they themselves steward. This bond with something live instills responsibility, respect, confidence, and perhaps atonement for the attrocities many of them have been subject to through their service to our country. Many of the veterans suffer from chemical dependencies. This project proves to be a great distraction from some of the destructive habits and routines they may have fallen into. Best of all, the participants in this program will go on to educate and train others in the art, science, and engineering of aquaponics.

Dave Mangin
I have searched for several years for employment of my time that truly benefits the functioning of my community and society. First I thought the only thing one could do is to plant a garden. Then I got into teaching. Now, I get to do both in a way that helps to promote the agricultural revolution, empowers citizens, and lays the ground for expanding upon aquaponics technology that has developed over millenia. At Sweetwater, we share what we are learning in every conceivable way, and encourage others to do the same as we help the world move on to a socially and environmentally enhanced future. Being a part of this movement is just about the most fulfilling thing I have ever done. By turning waste to resources, we truly enrich others as well as ourselves.

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For Maud

One Manifesto, of a few.

I, for a long time, have been in search of an honorable livelihood. It seemed that no matter what action I made, it compromised something of great value to me. I was either burning fossil fuels, neglecting my studies or my health; I was selling out to the man; I was depleting the ozone layer; supporting profit mongering CEOs, or most regretfully, shitting on the natural resources and beauty that abound if we as stewards of food webs would only let them.

I could dwell in this essay upon this conundrum as I did for approximately 7 years of my life, or I could spare the disparity that welled up in me during that time and get to the point of this essayóthe solution. Considering the ill effects we have on ourselves, society, environment, and an insatiable economy with virtually every act of consumption we make, it occurred to me (under the strangest yet most fitting of circumstances) that perhaps the best single thing a person could do in consideration of all external effects is to plant a garden.

If an economyís security is limited the most vulnerable link in the chain of resources on which the economy ultimately depends, common sense renders such that the stability of the populace lies not in one large machine-like enterprise, but many small industries that support multiple communities and micro-populations. If citizens can raise a diverse array of foods locally on which their community depends, they will not be so affected by an epidemic in the mono-cultural, industrialized, commercial agribusiness industry. And if one small population succumbs to a localized drought or infestation, disastrous as that would be, it would not jeopardize the health of the citizenry of the nation, island, or continent as a whole. Thus, in the interest of long term stability for the community and the race, it is better to draw resources from as diversified and local pools as possible. Localized agriculture is probably the most basic and effective way to implement this concept. Food represents one of our most fundamental needs, and one of the most resource-intensive.

Personal Health
There are two components to the personal benefits derived from hyper-locally grown produce and protein: nutritional and fulfillment.
First and easiest to quantify are the numbers to be crunched that back the health of fresh produce and meat grown in a way that the food is minutes or hours, rather than days or weeks, from farm to plate. Generally speaking, fresh food is healthier food (although I do enjoy the salt crystallization that occurs in 12 year cheddar).
The second benefit of personally grown food to oneís (thusly societyís) health, although a bit more difficult to tabulate but no less complimentary to oneís well-being, is psychological. There is a terrible separation in our society of people from the resources on which we depend for our very survival. This disconnect shapes the way we see our world and distorts the emphases we place upon things of perceived value. We find ourselves embracing the sterilized, compartmentalized, digitized, simplified, virtual versions of our reality to the complex, organic ones that give rise to true wisdom with respect to the natural forces that have shaped or world for countless millennia. By owning a portion of our livelihood, if perhaps only through a fraction of our daily food intake, we once again forge the bonds that tie us to the materials and patterns of the fabric on which our lives depend. It creates a sense of wholeness within ourselves and purpose with respect to our surroundings. Our food becomes something real when we grow it ourselves.

We are often too removed from the source of our food to realize the impacts it has on our environment. That there are very few worms and other soil dwelling organisms in a field of corn sprayed by insecticides and fertilizers, our most trusted pollinators are dying off due to crops enhanced with insect resistant tissues, that wars are being fought so we can ship en mass the produce from other continents to our mouths when they are naturally out of season, or that we are endangering our own sustenance as well as that of others with vast monocultures ripe for the picking of epidemic and outbreak, that we plow under or drain whole ecosystems so that we may satiate a mere preference or convenience, are all crimes against every organism we thoughtlessly cast aside, but perhaps more riveting; these things are crimes against the heirs of this world-our children.

The Solution
It is time to wake society up. We at Sweetwater have solutions to these culturally ingrained travesties. We have, right now, the technology and wisdom to turn this tide of self destruction. We are actively and passionately empowering our peers and our future generations with the tools we need to thrive as a species. We are addressing the afflictions to our societal well-being with the urban agricultural movement.

It started with gardens in the city. This is well and good for the people who have an awareness of what they would otherwise be missing. But we are exposing others to their need for fresh food, incorporating hands-on learning into education on some of the basic forces that govern our collective reality, and providing means to solutions that will create a brighter future than I have been able to conceive since I realized that meat did not merely come from the supermarket or heat from the thermostat. We are equipping the future of Milwaukee, the nation, and the world with the tools necessary to adapt to a world that is changing faster than ever before.

Why Aquaponics
Why mess with pumps, lights, heaters, and shelters when we can grow things naturally in the ground? Our answers lay in several value sets: nutrition, environment, consistency, and education.

Humans need a consistent intake of protein to survive. The fish raised in an aquaponic system could now, and will certainly in the future, prove to be the cleanest and most efficient source of healthy protein on the planet.

Again without going into numbers, a fraction of the water is used to raise fish (10–20%, I couldnít resist) as opposed to the acreage and volume of water used to raise cattle. Since one treatment of plants, animals, or bacteria affects all others within the system, we are forced into the realm of organic production. This boils down to healthy food at lower ecological cost than the imported beef, produce, and grain on which we currently depend.

While it does cost energy to run pumps and maintain temperatures in an isolated environment that sustains aquaponic ecosystems, this method of food production can be maintained year round, regardless of climatic zone (within the continental US). This means year round harvest from anyone utilizing this type of production system, virtually anywhere. Properly implemented with technology currently at our finger tips, we have the capacity right now to produce food in a way that benefits the people who deserve it most: the consumers and the producers, instead of the companies reaping profit from the contamination of our environment, food, and culture. Small operations well dispersed locally will profit according to the benefits they provide others, rather than executives of large corporations reaping obnoxious material wealth off the backs of the increasingly suppressed workers who make it all happen.

Of course, aquaponic agribusiness has not yet established itself. It can only do so under proper foresight of its implementers. The background needed for such balance between society, economy, and ecology demands that the highest standards of education be met by the people who are to implement this system. And what better way to learn than by the model itself? The proper ratio of fish to water volume to green surface area, the residence time of water in biofilters and fish tanks, the inner workings of pump-less systems, the correlation of temperature to dissolved oxygen to metabolic rate, the number of systems of a given size per square mile at an assumed population density, the profitability of a system growing vegetables and fish at predetermined rates, the carbon footprint of every system, the capacity for greenhouses to be heated by thermal compost or bio-fuels, the best method of promoting these systems, their cultural acceptance, and their historic significance, can all be questions and lessons for todayís students at any age. What better holistic teacher than a living system within our classroom, that our students create themselves? These points and innumerable more are all inherent to the lessons to be learned from aquaponics.

For a teacher, school, community, politician, or culture to turn away from this opportunity is to turn away from a source of prosperity—monetarily, culturally and ecologically.

I may be forsaking financial security for the present, but I am investing in the future by placing the energy I can summon into urban agriculture, aquaponics, and Sweetwater Organics. The time is ripe for change. Economic irresponsibility, drained aquifers, invasive species, greater densities of humans, erratic weather patterns, and suppressed working class people are all factors that will drive the era of micro rather than mega industry, local instead of imported, sustainable and harmonious rather than burgeoning and dominant. We are at the tipping point of a revolution that will mark our generation as among the greatest ever because of the opportunities for enlightenment in cultural, economic, social, educational, and ecological harmony, integrity, self reliance, and stability we on the front line are providing for the general populace. The change is peaceful, massively embraced, and beneficial for all.

This is the greatest revolution since the Rennaisance.
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Itís a restless hungry feeling that never did nobody no good*
And if you havenít ever been there then it canít be understood
I look past my back yard at the lives we throw aside
Iím gonna find a way to break free and leave it all behind.

We live an insulated life, the effects of which Iíve seen
In the death of a wild river and wilderness once pristine
In the mangled body of a child, who never harmed no other
But the crop dusting planes sprayed his expectant mother.

Iím but a cog in a machine grotesquely large
I cannot know my place, much less be in charge
The machine devours the resources of many poor nations
That we may fester in our small sterile haven.

This automated world offers no personal satisfaction
But effects ripple of our every destructive action
There exist holistic alternatives to satisfy our need
Iím trying hard but cannot renounce my animalistic greed.

Iím ashamed to be its subject, a notion I should see through
I canít escape its clutches that for a thousand ages grew
I know I can be content yet find ways to mend the land
But I still succumb to the evolutionary hand.

These forces often duel, the stewardship and indulgence
They wrestle and they tear and wear upon my conscience
I cannot locate a compromise, a universal atonement
That will satisfy this avarice yet heal my environment.

I feel a quiet kind of rage thatís normally tamed or masked
But it sometimes billows and swells to a fury unsurpassed
I donít know what it takes to alleviate the strain
Itís both causing and immune to much personal pain.

Itís the grey and dusty wind before a green clouded storm
You know itís gonna hit, but thereís nowhere to keep warm
Mothers hide their children and the dogs search for cover
Youíre left exposed and must hang on to wait till it blows over.

The rage swells and ducks back; it ebbs and it flows
So far itís controlled, but thereís one thing I know
Every time I pull back and suppress this raging fury
It grows in my gullet and compounds in severity.
The clouds are ever mounting and the day is getting dark
Itís just a matter of time before the world hears my bark.

I try to bleed the valve, but this only makes it worse
Exercise is conditioning for a more violent outburst
Soon Iíll start lifting, and then Iíll also be strong
Coupled with skilled endurance no opponent can stand long.

It could be a run or a drink, or someone out of line
A misspoken word and the most inopportune time
And then itíll happen in a magnificent blast
The rage will ignite, releasing its wrath at last.

Iím lean and Iím fit, Iíll be in the best shape of my life
Iíll start training hard and practice for the fight
It may be four or six or a single solitary man
My fury will unleash like no one elseís can.

But the hunger goes unsatiated - a fight finishes in a flash
This fury has the endurance to withstand a short lived test
It cannot be exhausted, it sprouts with every wrong deed
To stop its growth you must kill the root of such a resilient weed.

No bar brawl, no run, no person, nor gun
Can quell this mounting rage that has not yet begun
Perhaps I need a squall, or the most horrendous of storms
To kick my ass and tear the sails which drive this ship of scorn.

Dynamite snuffs an oil fire, anything less is fuel
My erupting rage needs a larger force to extinguish its inferno
Something larger to whip me, to strike and hold me down
So that others may gather to see what can be found

What will they find amid the dust and devastation-
The remains of a body unfit for identification?
What if I overcome and the tempest falls usunder?
Will my rage surmount to pillage and to plunder?

It takes merely an ember surviving the doused fire
To raise a flame that feeds upon the mire
The rage will echo to distances ever longer
The trial of the gale will have only made it stronger.

One thing remains, then to calm my emotions down
To snuff this fire and drive my rage clear into the ground
What could calm an emotion whose strength a storm couldnít summon?
Could it be found in the hungry touch of a fast loving woman?

I could be reduced to nothing, a shell of my previous anger
My fury dissipated, like a wisp of vanishing vapor
Iíd be exhausted, and in the calm that follows the storm
Regress to societyís finely established norm.

But what of the child, the wilderness, the river
Who all perish that our society might prosper?
Who will stop the wars our own people wage
That support our lives in this Information Age?

My fury had no direction, and perhaps no solution
But it spoke as a voice against societal dilution
What happened to my dharma only heaven could instill?
I lost my fury to the deception of a hot little female.

My ambition lost, and my purpose along with it
Reduced to a misplaced life in the suburban thicket
Iíd grow a lawn, drive a truck, and become a football fan
Iíd eat beef and be a fat, useless, postmodern man.

If this came to pass, that I yield to primordial forces
Lifeís journey could be shadowed by two or three divorces
My libido satisfied, but with a grand hole in my heart
Iíd long to leave it all, looking for a better start.

Now, what if my rage focused beyond worldly diversion
Could the steward satisfy the misguided perversion?
Through positive action the world regains balance
Where we prosper in Nature, honing our godly talents.

Perhaps this fury is not my fiend
But energy when fatigue leaves me in need
With the path apparent my fury will burn as fuel
I can fly from this life, subsisting on elements harmonial.

We could live beyond this world, chasing our inner directive
Seeing through simple desires with an external perspective
We could live with the earth, enjoying our bountiful stay
Using love instead of money as our guide to show the way.

Without this path the rage tears upon my soul
The battle goes on, keeping my heart unwhole.
There may be a solution, a conversion could be nigh
A transformation of rage into a spiritual high.

Iíd leap across the spectrum, from dark past every light
This fury would serve as a tool to end my painful plight
No woman, no scuffle, no storm will be its end
But my rage itself could heal, bringing me back from round the bend.

This energy wrought of hypocrisy and our poverty dependence exposed
Could be the potion to cure my ill and bring me to real gold
It could drive our compassion, our most sacred devotion
To promote and nurture love, the most fruitful emotion.

The answer itself is really quite simple
Itís found in the crease of a small childís dimple
All we need to do, that others may fruitfully live
Is to never cease to love and to give.

Embrace your desire, but look for its source
Following blindly destroys as a matter of course
Do not covet, but cultivate, that others may share
You may then truly grow, relieved of worldly care.

May we search out the effects of our international action
And come to rely on more local, controllable factions
Let us focus where we are and reap its natural bounty
And only in traveling experience that of another country.

Open your eyes to our practices so destructive
And you too will rage in a way seemingly unproductive
But it is the right direction, the first step along the path
It feeds humble labor without wasteful wrath.

Go to the mess, throw the skeletons from the closet
Display for all what youíve bound and kept quiet
Destroy their danger and eliminate the shame
Dry up the spill that spreads this secretive game.

Live and love in an environment more local
Find your solution and of it be vocal
Our paths are unique but methodology the same
To find our pinnacle in this, the worldly game.

This rage is no enemy, but a tool of fire
It can power a flight from our worldly desire
It will rise and fall but drive you to a distant land
Leaving the trees that youíll see the forest, lending perspective to guide your loving hand.

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on May 02, 2011

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