Hooked On Aquaponics

By Carol Haggas, Pam Otto and Erika Young

The beauty and bounty of plants is essential to the mission of the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center in St. Charles, Ill. The grounds are a vibrant canvas of native grasses and forbs, also known as wildflowers. Meanwhile, dozens of green-thumb gardeners plant plots of tomatoes, beans, and squash every summer for their own use as well as to share with the Northern Illinois Food Bank and other local charities.

But growing crops inside the Discovery Center?  Well, that’s something new.

Thanks to an inspired collaboration between the park district and Flavors of North America (FONA) International of Geneva, a new aquaponics display honors both organizations’ shared mission of responsible ecological stewardship through an innovative use of materials and resources.

Aquaponics may be a new concept to most Discovery Center visitors, but it’s an agricultural system that can be traced back to the Aztec civilization in the year 1000 A.D.  The Discovery Center will put this ancient technology to work cultivating vegetables and other greens that can then be used to feed many of the center’s resident critters.

“We’ve always wanted to be able to provide fresh food for many of the animals who live here,” says Lisa O’Brien, Nature Programs Coordinator. “Now, we get to do it while demonstrating a very basic yet very important part of a natural ecosystem.”

A Little Background
Simply stated, aquaponics is a system for raising fish and other aquatic animals in conjunction with plants via a circulating system that provides benefits for both. Fish produce biological waste that breaks down into nitrates and ammonia. Too much of these byproducts can be harmful for aquatic life, but they provide excellent fertilizer for plants. By having tank water pumped through a biofilter into a growing medium for plants, nutrients can sustain simple vegetables, such as lettuces and herbs. The water that is cleaned and filtered by vegetation is then cycled back into the fish tank to provide a fresh environment that will continue to safely sustain aquatic life.

The aquaponics display featured at Hickory Knolls Discovery Center is the brainchild of Luke Slawek, president and chief operating officer of FONA, which designs and produces flavors for food, beverage, and nutraceutical and pharmaceutical industries worldwide. A self-described outdoorsman with a passion for nature, Slawek was attracted to aquaponics for its unique ability to bring nature indoors in the form of a total ecosystem.

In 2008, FONA realized that the large plastic bulk containers called “totes,” used in their manufacturing process, could be repurposed. But how?

“That’s when I did research and came across this whole aquaponics community,” Slawek recalls. “We set up a tank with soft-shelled turtles and African cichlid fish that is still running almost 10 years later.” Slawek then developed four additional aquaponics-system prototypes for demonstration and educational purposes.

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“My intention was to introduce aquaponics into local schools to have them be a resource to educate youth about the outdoors and build that passion for sustainability,” says Slawek. “It also is an opportunity for cross-curriculum training because it touches on biology, chemistry, horticulture, agriculture--even shop woodworking, mechanics, and engineering.”

Introducing Residents To The Animals
With its accessibility and established relationship with area schools and scout troops, as well as a diverse visitor base that attracts all ages and interest levels, Hickory Knolls seemed like an ideal location to introduce the concept to students and homeowners.

The aquaponics system is home to several local aquatic species, such as minnows, crayfish, and turtles. Situated above their tank, a triangular bed of clay-based gravel provides the growing medium for the greens and herbs favored by the resident mascot, Peter Rabbit, as well as a guinea pig, turtles, and other creatures residing throughout the center. Water is circulated through the bed via a charming country tin pail.

“We added some special UV lighting to ensure healthy turtle growth. As much as we want the public to learn about aquaponics, we also want to ensure the health of the animals inside the unit,” says Pam Otto, Hickory Knolls’ Manager of Nature Programs and Interpretive Services.

The aquaponics system and display itself is a prime example of good environmental stewardship. In addition to the plastic tote used as the aquatic tank, FONA also donated the pumping devices and wooden pallets that support the entire system.

“I love the way our system reuses a food ingredient container, a 4-by-4-by-4-foot cube cut in half so that the actual height of the unit is about two feet,” says Otto. “Reduce, reuse. and recycle are very important initiatives of Hickory Knolls.”

Visitors can view the aquaponics display by walking up the steps of a small deck area that recreates a residential porch, thus reinforcing how accessible aquaponics systems can be for the home user.

“We want to encourage visitors to think about ways they could incorporate something like this in their own homes,” said O’Brien.  “Once they understand the concept, even a small aquarium could be set up as an aquaponics farm system.”

Partners With Passion
A word of caution from O’Brien: “It does take some time to get the system up and running. Like a garden, you have to prepare the soil before the plants grow. Same with aquaponics; you need to get the right type of water, critters, and nitrogen fixing/transforming bacteria before adding your plants.”

The design and construction of Hickory Knolls’ aquaponics system was a true team effort, says Slawek. In addition to FONA staff members Barb Pugesek and Katie Sudler, who took the lead on the educational aspects of this community-outreach initiative, stainless-steel fabricator Zoran Markovic adapted Slawek’s original prototype to fit Hickory Knolls’ specific parameters. “He is an extremely talented tradesman so I knew he could put something together that would be aesthetically pleasing but that would also fit in the space as ergonomically as possible,” says Slawek. Slawek also relied upon the expertise of Mike Mendel of Mendel Plumbing and Heating, who provided assistance in mechanical design.

“I also found the passion of Pam and Lisa helped create the attraction of placing the system at Hickory Knolls,” says Slawek. “There were a lot of options about where we could have done this work, but it was Pam and Lisa who impressed us with their ability to impact the community. If you want to get this concept out to the people—the biology teachers and others who inspire future biologists—Hickory Knolls is the destination for those amazing people.”

“One of the most important things I’ve learned over the years is to make connections—with people and businesses. Your community is your greatest resource. Just put yourself out there and make conversations with anyone and everyone as you have no idea what great ideas will come,” says Otto.

Carol Haggas is a Freelance Writer for the St. Charles Park District.

Pam Otto is the Manager of Nature Programs & Interpretive Services for the St. Charles Park District.

Erika Young is the PR & Marketing Manager for the St. Charles Park District in St. Charles, Ill. Reach her at (630) 513-4319 or eyoung@stcparks.org.