I was hung over from celebrating a friend’s birthday party the night before the Sunday I brought the aquaponics system home. Not a good idea. It took me and my buddy Scott Weir 13 hours to drain the system, dismantle it, and reassemble it at my house. Scott built the system on a grant last year. He is an aquaponics whiz kid. We started at noon on a Sunday and finished just after 1am. It was a grueling day. The water smells kind of swampy and fishy and when I was bagging the lava rocks, and pumping out the water it made me feel absurdly nauseous. It was exhausting trying to stay motivated and not throw up.
Scott was a new connection I made this summer from signing up for his community supported agriculture (CSA). I mentioned BNY to him when we first launched it one day while at the farmer’s market picking up my basket of food. I told him I was interested in building a window farm to grow some food as part of our buy nothing year. He said the yields from aquaponics were much better, and thus the seed was planted to build an aquaponics system. A month later Scott was considering moving from his current place and did not want to take the system with him. That was how I ended up with it. We weren’t super tight since we were newly acquainted However, the 13 hours we spent together working on this gave us ample time to connect. I saw firsthand how experiences like this really do bring people together and build community. We bond through struggle and strife. Community results from shared experiences.
Scott was teaching me about the system while we took it apart. Taking it apart involved catching the fish in nets and putting them into buckets, pumping out all the water from the system, ripping out the plants, bagging up the lava rocks, dismantling the frame, and then moving it over. There were all sorts of little goodies while we did this like aphids, and spiders, and a couple dried dead fish on the ground underneath the system.
I have now had the system in my house and operational for two months. Initially I was feeling very nervous about it. Scott was showing me all the ways the system could flood while we were putting it back together in my place. I was scared I could screw it up, kill all the fish and flood my house. Thankfully none of that came to fruition. I was intimidated by it nevertheless. I ordered Scott and I pizza for dinner that night, then he left.
The next day Julie avoided the kitchen. She did not even know what to think of it at all. It was big. It was noisy. It was…alive. It seemed very alien having this ecosystem in our house all of a sudden. It didn’t quite fit into the ecosystem of our lives yet.
The following day was a Monday and I took that day off work. I didn’t feel comfortable leaving the system in the house alone in case something happened. I wanted to monitor it and the fish to make sure the levels in the water for ammonia, nitrites and the pH balance were all good. Scott built the system to have doors minimizing light and noise emanating from it. However, I quickly discovered that these doors also keep the fish from jumping out. I left the doors open for the first couple hours and kept coming into the kitchen periodically to check on the fish and see how they were doing. At one point, two of the bigger tilapia had jumped out and were lying on my kitchen floor. Panic set in. I quickly scooped up one fish and tossed it back into the water. It sank to the bottom. The fish were dead. First day with the system and I had already killed two new members of my home.
I was distraught. At this point into buy nothing year, we had a few people mention to us that we were brave or courageous doing what we were doing. I didn’t really get it initially, but in this moment I felt brave. I felt overwhelmed, and that I had to be courageous and just buckle down and overcome this learning curve. I was scared that more fish would die, that I would ruin this system, and that I would fail at aquaponics, thus leading to no food security in our last month of BNY.
I said to Julie, “I have never gardened before. I have never owned fish. I know nothing about these things or aquaponics. At what point did I think this was a good idea?”.
I was regretting my choice. Scott had given me the opportunity to back out on three different occasions while we were dismantling the system. Each time I almost replied that I didn’t want to take it, but I thought, be brave, be brave, be brave… He said once it was set up in my house, if I didn’t want it would be my issue to take it apart. I understood. Dismantling this system is no easy task. I wouldn’t be volunteering to do it again either.
Scott mentioned how people seem to romanticize the urban farmer. They act like urban farming has the power to save us and change our food system, but often gloss over how much work it actually is. It is a lot of work. I saw how hard Scott works at the CSA and how much love he puts into these systems he builds.
Now two months later, the system seems to be thriving. I had a few hiccups during these past couple months. For example, I have these itsy bitsy bugs living in the system. Scott said not to worry about them, they just stay in the system and they are not hurting the plants at all. I also have had a little bit of a mildew problem. It seems to be dissipating as well though. I am going to keep monitoring it and see what happens. I may need to do something about it at some point. Last, I have a plethora of earth worms. Scott said these were good too. It means the system is healthy. I didn’t know where they came from though, until Scott confessed he put a couple in there when he first started the system. Now there are loads of them. I can scoop up some lava rock anywhere and uncover some worms.
When Scott offered me the way out, it was only my commitment to BNY that carried me onwards. It took me out of my comfort zone more than almost any other aspect of the project to date. Two months in, and with the exception of the first two fishy suicides, I have not lost anymore fish. They seem to be healthy, happy, and hungry.
I am no longer afraid of the system. Neither is Julie. Sometimes we just open up the doors and peer into this tiny universe we have inherited. Sometimes I meditate to the sounds of the water pump and pretend its a waterfall. The smell no longer bothers me. I barely even register the noise it makes anymore. And what seemed like would be really hard to learn, no longer feels impossible. I get excited when I see all the things I plant in it thrive and grow. Plus it is pretty awesome picking kale leaves to add to dinners knowing that it was freshly grown in my kitchen. I cannot really get much more local than that.