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Aquaponics Inspiration: A Visit with Nelson and Pade

March 29, 2010

When you pull into the driveway at Nelson and Pade’s new facility in Montello, Wisconsin it is a little disorienting because there is no signal that you have just entered ground zero for what is arguably the driving force of commercial aquaponics in the U.S. today. There is no sign (their directions are “the # is W3731.  There are lamp posts on each side of the driveway, one with a white bulb, one with a green bulb”). There are no greenhouses…yet. The new property is on 12 acres, with plenty of room to move their current greenhouse and add two more this summer. All you see is a small, old house and a large warehouse.

My daughter and I were in Madison visiting the University of Wisconsin last week and we decided (ok… I decided) to take Saturday morning and visit Rebecca Nelson and John Pade. This dynamic duo started their aquaponics consulting business in the mid-90’s, when aquaponics was barely known outside of a few remote university departments. They have since created a business around advancing aquaponics in the U.S., especially the deep water culture, or “raft”, technique developed by Dr. James Rakocy at the University of the Virgin Islands. They have the top-ranked aquaponics website (Aquaponics.com), have continuously published the Aquaponics Journal for the past 14 years, and have written the only book on aquaponics ever published in the U.S. (“Aquaponic Food Production“). They have created school curricula, videos, and a 2-day Aquaponics workshop that they offer as often as monthly during the warmer months.

I first met them at one of these workshops last spring, and have since kept up a correspondence that has encompassed everything from my home systems to the U.S. aquaponics community (including Rebecca being one of the first members of the AquaponicsCommunity.com) to future projects we may embark on together.

Rebecca is a quiet, warm, down-to-earth person who focuses on the plant, fish and marketing side of the business. John is an intense, no-nonsense analytical type of guy who focuses on the hardware, greenhouses, lighting, and engineering side of the business. As my daughter and I emerged from the car Rebecca greeted us with a warm hug and John with a handshake. After introductions we followed them into a large warehouse-style building where I finally had a sense that I was truly in the right place. There were multiple sets of bright blue plastic tanks, clarifiers, and grow beds on beautiful wooden stands lined up exactly as they would be in a greenhouse. They looked as if they were in a dress rehearsal for their future lives. Rebecca pointed out which set was going to Austria and which was being palletized for a more local destination after that. Then she said in an almost wistful voice “then we get to work on Haiti”. She went on to explain that they had developed an off-grid aquaponics system for delivery to a Christian ministry in Haiti whose dual function was to both produce food and demonstrate the power of aquaponics to drive fundraising for other, larger systems. “When we started they needed to feed about 10,000 people. Now, after the earthquake, they are looking to feed about 40,000 people.” John added “What these non-profit groups are realizing is that the old model of raising money to buy food is actually crippling these people in need. The new model is to raise money to buy food producing systems and make the people independent.” When you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. When you give him an aquaponics system he will eat for a lifetime.

We then went into the old farm home that they have converted into a charming set of offices for themselves and their 3 employees. Our discussion ranged from grow lights to the aquaponics community, and a myriad of other topics. When it was time to leave Rebecca walked us back to our car and I asked her a question that I had wanted to ask ever since we met … “are you and John married?” She laughed and said “well, we really are married but just never took the time to have a ceremony”. Given all they have done in the aquaponics community, and all the exciting, impactful plans they have for the future I find that very, very easy to believe.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Bob Segraves permalink
    May 29, 2010 6:41 pm

    You’re such a gossip….

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