Sylvia Bernstein: America’s Aquaponics Dynamo!

“Don’t trust anyone who tells you that aquaponics isn’t addictive. It is. It’s like a drug habit where you just have to keep getting more and more to be satisfied. If you don’t believe me, prowl around on the Australian forums and see what is happening….” wrote Sylvia Bernstein in her first blog post on Aquaponics.

Since then, Sylvia’s addiction has spread into creating an active Aquaponics forum, Facebook page, Twitter account, an online shop specifically catering to the US growing fascination with all things Aquaponics – and then there’s all the little videos clips on YouTube and now even a DVD on the subject! A month after starting her blog the New York Times interviewed her for a story on Aquaponics. Interest in Aquaponics leapt immediately.

Anyone who can extol the virtues of bacteria farming and compare it to the rolling pastures of grassland farming whilst reading “The Omnivores Dilemma” can’t be all that bad we thought – because Sylvia is also very good writer and evangelist for all things Aquaponics. If anyone can succeed bringing Aquaponics to America – it’ll be Sylvia and her single-minded determination to succeed.

We caught up with Sylvia Bernstein preparing to bring Murray Hallam over on a speaking tour of America later this year and managed to pry her away from her busy schedule to answer a few questions.

How did you first find out about Aquaponics?
I first heard about aquaponics during my early years at AeroGrow International around 2003 – 2004. I was reading everything I could get my hands on about hydroponics at that time because I was part of a small team that was developing the AeroGarden product. I think I first heard about it through an article in The Growing Edge magazine. At the time I remember thinking that it sounded very fringe and too organic, granola crunchy to really work. It wasn’t until 2008 when my good buddy, John Thompson started telling me about his experiments with aquaponics in his basement that I started paying closer attention. On a rainy day in early 2009 my then 14 year old son and I were looking for something to do together so I suggested we go check out John’s basement aquaponics setup and his newly hatched chickens. We were both astounded at the life emerging out of this humble basement setup. Enough so that we spent the entire car ride home designing our first aquaponics system, and had it mostly built by the time the weekend was over. A personal obsession was launched.

Aerogrow garden

What is your background?
I went to college at the University of California with a degree in Agricultural and Managerial Economics and a minor degree in English. The funny thing is that while having an agricultural degree would imply that I actually had an interest in growing plants, nothing could have been further from the truth. My first job out of college was with Andersen Consulting in San Francisco where I learned to program computers in COBAL. Another pretty serious mismatch for my skill set and temperament. I was assigned for two years to an easy job in downtown Chicago so I sure couldn’t complain.
I count myself very fortunate to have been able to spend this time with my kids, and out of the luxury of the relative flexibility of my life came the discovery of a dual passions: gardening, especially vegetable gardening, and cooking. I was constantly in the dirt, to the point where my husband gave me a portable spotlight for Christmas one year so I could garden in the dark! I started gardening projects at two of my kids schools, and during the winter I took classes, and read everything on gardening and cooking that I could find.

My husband retired from consulting shortly after we moved to Boulder, CO at the age of 49. Two adults in the house full time was one too many, so it was time for me to go back to work. I came upon a classified ad for a local startup company named AeroGrow looking for someone to run their hydroponic plant growing laboratory. Finally, the perfect job! I joined AeroGrow in early 2003 as a part-time employee and quickly became a full time member of the senior team. I created, ran and later managed the grow lab and the nursery and was the Director of Plant Products. In fall of 2007 I was promoted to VP of Innovation and Product Development, and a year later became the VP of Marketing and Product Development. I left AeroGrow in the fall of 2009 to start The Aquaponic Source with my husband.

Sylvia's Aquaponics System

Tell us about your home Aquaponics System?
I have a 12’ x 20’ 15 year old glass greenhouse that came with our current house. The guy who built it was an intense water gardener and he built it to winter his water lilies and as well as grow orchids. In 2004 I retrofitted the entire greenhouse for hydroponics and started using it to both grow vegetables over the winter and to start seedlings for the outdoor garden for the spring. In 2009 we retrofitted the entire greenhouse again, but this time for aquaponics and for testing and experimenting with design prototypes for our AquaBundance aquaponic system. It now has 4 complete AquaBundance systems (a fifth resides inside our house, and a 6th on our deck) and a variety of other product development experiments.
I grow a wide variety of heirloom tomatoes, Turkish cucumbers, Rainbow and Rhubarb Chard, strawberries, about 6 kinds of peppers, 3 kinds of basil, parsley and many other herbs, and several types of flowers just to keep it all colorful! The most unusual plant that I’m currently growing is from seeds brought back from France by a friend for a physallis plant. It gives off wonderful sweet berries that are in a tomatillo-like husk and has grown to about 8’ tall, covering part of the roof of the greenhouse. I mostly grow tilapia, and have about 100, with a pacu, an Oscar and a few goldfish thrown in for fun and learning. I spend about 5 minutes twice a day feeding and observing the fish, about ½ an hour a week tending to the plants, and probably an hour a month doing other maintenance. I never add supplemental nutrients, and the pH has been stable at 7/0 for about 9 months now. It is a remarkably easy garden to take care of!

Your Forum website? What motivated you to build one?
The forum website I manage is called I started it because, while forums are incredibly important to emerging, grass-roots technology like aquaponics, I was never really comfortable with the typical forum user interface. Our site uses Ning as a platform which means that you can easily access forum topics, blog posts, photos, videos or other activity right from the home page. I also felt that there was a need for more, and better, community sites in the U.S. There are tremendous sites in Australia, but they often focus on Australian fish species that we can’t get here (barramundi and jade perch) and on growing in a year-round gardening climate. Our community site was started in January of this year, has been very active and has been growing steadily. We currently have about 300 members.

Why are people turning to Aquaponics?
I think that aquaponics is a natural outgrowth of the urban homesteading movement that has brought about the explosion in home vegetable gardening and backyard chicken raising. As we continue to lose faith in the institutions that control our food supply (the government, the agricultural complex, chain restaurants, food processors) self reliance will become increasingly important.
It is also perfect for those innovative souls that are always looking for the next best way to garden. Aquaponics is a unique blend of technology and mimicking nature. When you really think about it, it is both amazing that it works (no soil, no filters, etc.), and amazing that everyone doesn’t grow this way. It is a fascinating hobby.

Aqua Abundance Aquaponics System

Whats the reaction so far by your neighbors and friends?
Interest here is growing slowly, mainly because I’ve started teaching local classes but that is really more of an effort to give back to our community rather than grow our business here. Our business model is different than Murray’s or Joel’s because we really aren’t a design/build operation. Our AquaBundance system has been designed to be more compact and turn-key, and is being marketed nation-wide.

Where do you see the Future of Aquaponics in America?
There are two tracks of aquaponics that are really just getting started in the US – commercial and home systems. There is a lot of wonderful energy going into setting up commercial systems in blighted urban settings, especially in warehouses. I think that aquaponics as a tool for urban renewal is very exciting. On the home / hobby side I believe the DIY community will continue to drive aquaponic innovation, but that aquaponics will move into the mainstream more and more. As that occurs demand for easy to set up, well made, attractive foolproof systems like ours will increase. I was just at an independent garden center trade show where one of the big news stories continues to be a focus on vegetable gardening and homesteading. Hydroponics is flourishing in the U.S. Both are macro trends that bode well for the future aquaponics in America.

Sylvia’s Websites
Website (and blog):
Twitter: @aquapon
Facebook: TheAquaponicSource