ESLP students install aquaponics system

Confusion and curiosity have found their way to the A-quad this past quarter as a mysterious pit lined with plastic and encircled with rocks has gradually developed. Many have questions about what we are trying to do: What is this strange scar in the landscape? Why are there non-PICAns with wheelbarrows of rocks over-enthusiastically attacking the ground with shovels and picks? What in the world could they possibly be trying to accomplish?

The answer is as long or short as your interest allows. The easy answer is that we are building an aquaponics system. The longer answer starts with Alan Chadwick in the late 60s, continues through CASFS, CAN, PICA, and more. This campus has always been a place where we have experimented with the human relationship to food and how it is produced. From the Vitalist leanings of Biodynamics that Chadwick transplanted to UC Santa Cruz stemmed an increased interest in the science of the physical systems and inter-relationships that nurture the organisms that we call food.

Our hole in the ground, our aquaponics project, intends to mimic the nitrogen cycle that happens between the plants and animals in wetlands. Fish waste is taken up by plants’ roots, bacteria break down the waste, and plants filter out the water. This creates a co-generative cycle where the only inputs are the sun and food for the aquatic organisms. In China, rice paddies with tilapia provide farmers with both fish and grain; whereas, the final manifestation of our project will provide a learning opportunity for visitors at the Sustainable Living Center, vegetables, and provide a home to native invertebrates and mosquito fish.

We are an interdisciplinary group of students participating in the Education for Sustainable Living Program and funded by Measure 43, a student passed initiative that funds projects and events involving the food system. Hopefully the project will not only create a way for people on campus to learn about the nitrogen cycle, but will help its participants learn about alternative urban agriculture in a hands-on way.


Andrew Holstedt worked with Alex Ireland to lead an ESLP Action Research Team this spring. Andrew has been a PICA resident and will return next year as the CUIP intern, continuing to develop the aquaponics project and engage students in the PICA community.


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