When Pat Wilborn learned about aquaponics 12 years ago, it opened his eyes to a sustainable way of farming and he knew immediately that this was something he wanted to pursue. “I bought into the concept and decided it was time to give something back,” says Wilborn. He and his wife, Amy Otis-Wilborn, first built a small aquaponics model in their home in Port Washington, and after refining the process, they eventually built a 3,500-gallon aquaponics system called Port Fish. The nonprofit has a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model and also sells their larger fish to local restaurants. But most importantly, Pat Wilborn explains, the farm is a teaching device.
Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (farming without soil). The system works in a cycle: Fish create waste, which is then used to fertilize the water where the plants grow. When the plants take in those nutrients, they clean the water, which in turn is transferred back to the fish tanks. Or as Wilborn states: “You feed the fish, they create waste, plants grow.” Simple enough.
It’s hugely beneficial for the environment because it conserves water, fertilizes plants with natural fertilizer, has no run-off into rivers and lakes, and the list goes on. But unfortunately, aquaponics is not used on a large commercial scale despite the environmental benefits because it is expensive, something that the Wilborns realized when they started their first aquaponics experiment. They make some revenue with their CSA and restaurant fish sales, but they continue to put money into their organization to keep it running. The Wilborns, however, look at their venture in a different way. “It’s not a money-making opportunity,” says Wilborn, “but an opportunity to expand the capacity of knowledge.”
Traditional agriculture techniques must adapt to our changing climate, and people need to be educated about possible solutions. That is why the Wilborns and James Godsil of the Sweet Water Foundation (a supporter of Port Fish) strongly believe that aquaponics should be taught in schools. Port Fish has been working with the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and Johnson Controls to install an aquaponics system in Browning Elementary School. Located in the greenhouse on the school grounds, the small garden is expected to be finished next month and incorporated into the curriculum. Pat Wilborn’s intention is to help the school staff be self-sufficient in terms of maintaining the garden. The greenhouse allows the students to get out of the classroom and learn by getting their hands dirty—literally. “They have to get over the fact that they don’t know anything about it and just start poking it,” says Wilborn. When the children are physically involved in the growing process, they get a chance to see where their food comes from and how to lead healthy lifestyles.
Aquaponics has given Pat and Amy a healthier outlook on life and encouraged them to change their diets to whole-food and plant-based diets. In 12 years, they have built a sustainable farm, a strong connection to their community and a space for learning. Wilborn smiles while standing in his greenhouse and says, “The people that come through here benefit, I benefit, the community benefits.”
Learn more at portfish.org