Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

The Aquaponics Oasis Food Production System (Image courtesy of Michelle Leach.)
The Aquaponics Oasis Food Production System (Image courtesy of Michelle Leach.)

(Fish) farm to table

By Sheryl James
.

So, what’s the big idea?

Michelle Leach, PhD ’13/MS ’08/BSE ’06, was walking through a village in El Salvador in 2012 when she encountered a child she assumed was about 2 years old. He resembled her little cousin. Leach smiled and said, “Hello.” She expected a smile back, or a very simple reply.

Instead, the tyke said, “Hello, ma’am, it’s nice to meet you. How are you today?”

The biomedical engineer was taken aback: “I realized that his age was a lot closer to 5 than 2.”

She soon learned many children in the village were older than they looked.

“These children had food to eat every day,” Leach says. “There were corn and beans available – but not a lot, nor much else. I started researching alternative agricultural techniques that families might be able to use to produce more protein and vitamin-rich foods.”

And just like that, a brief roadside interaction sparked an innovation to help poor farmers across the globe improve their food supply – and their lives.

A true ‘big fish’ story

That innovation is the small-scale Oasis Aquaponic Food Production System. It’s a practical method to grow fish and vegetables, using “aquaponics,” a little-known form of integrated aquaculture.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines aquaculture as “the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of plants and animals in all types of water environments including ponds, rivers, lakes, and the ocean.” Aquaponics, meanwhile,  is the co-culture of fish and vegetables in a re-circulating biofilter-based system, says Leach.

Using the Oasis Aquaponic Food Production System, families and subsistence farmers can raise their own produce and fish using a few inexpensive elements: a 500-gallon fish tank, water pump, bio-filter, and an area to grow plants, i.e., a “grow bed” filled with gravel or clay beads. Water drains from the fish tank into the bed, where float switches control the action of the pump, which returns the filtered water to the fish tank.

Leach describes the Oasis as a portable, foldable “mini-ecosystem” that relies on the mutually beneficial interaction between fish, bacteria, and plants.

Oasis Graphic

(Image Courtesy of Michelle Leach.)

By land and by sea

Large-scale aquaculture is effective, but it requires access to resources and equipment that may be scarce in developing countries. Also, as Leach points out, “centralized aquaculture relies on markets and distribution channels to deliver food to families across broad geographic regions.” Produce and fresh fish have a short shelf life, which limits opportunities for widespread coverage.

Small-scale aquaponics can address those challenges, Leach says.

“The bacteria present in the bio-filter transform the fish waste into a form of nitrogen suitable for plant uptake,” she says. “The fish feed the plants and the plants clean the water for the fish. This symbiotic relationship allows more food to be grown in a smaller area with less water than traditional aquaculture or horticulture.”

Something’s fishy

Leach and Hernandez (Image courtesy of Leach.)

Leach and Hernandez (Image courtesy of Leach.)

When Leach first began researching aquaponics, she realized many existing systems were too costly, complex, and cumbersome to gain traction in the developing world. Then she met Jacquelyn Smith Hernandez Ortiz, an agricultural engineering specialist attending El Salvador’s Universidad Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero.

Leach saw in Hernandez a valuable collaborator, and encouraged her to use her senior thesis project to design an inexpensive, accessible, and sustainable method for families to supplement their largely grain-based diets. The resulting project led to “the first low-cost, high-yield complete aquaponics system,” Leach says.

The Oasis mimics a natural river floodplain ecosystem. It is capable of producing up to 200 fish (tilapia) and 600 pounds of vegetables per year. The system works on or off the grid (via solar power), conserves water, and is not reliant on agrichemicals. Its simplicity, size, and flexibility make it easy for people to install near the home, thus women tend to be the main operators. Enterprising owners can supplement the family’s income by selling excess vegetables and fish.

Food for thought

After developing the system in El Salvador, Leach took it to Australia in 2015, where the Oasis was one of 10 winning teams in the Blue Economy Challenge funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In June, Leach and Hernandez traveled to Tanzania to interview potential nonprofit partners to help implement a 30-system pilot project of the Oasis system.

Throughout the process of research, development, and testing, Leach and Hernandez discovered people actually enjoyed operating the aquaponics systems.

“People referred to feeding the fish as being a highlight of their days,” Leach says.

And perhaps the most significant benefit, other than the steady food supply, has been psychological.

“The constant uncertainty of poverty is incredibly stressful,” says Leach. “Producers found the systems reassuring in that they knew they had a reserve of food available. This was an unexpected but very positive result.”

Sheryl James

Sheryl James

SHERYL JAMES is a Pulitzer Prize-winning, freelance journalist from Brighton, Mich. She is a public relations specialist in the School of Information at U-M.

COMMENTS

  • michael wolk - 1970

    how much do these systems cost? where are they made? is there a program to distribute them? any metrics on results?
    great idea!!

    Reply

  • Michelle Leach - 2013

    Hi Michael. We’re launching a pilot in Tanzania within the next month. We have a small prototyping facility in Ann Arbor. They’re made from food grade polyethylene. You can sign up for our newsletter to receive project updates here: http://www.bridge-communities.org/oasis.html

    Reply

  • Ashish Gawade - 2005

    Hi Michelle,
    Great work!
    This could be of great relevance to India too. Will be happy to connect you with organizations in India so that the social impact is maximized.
    Cheers!
    Ashish Gawade
    MBA 2005

    Reply

  • Francine Dolins - current professor, Psychology

    Hi Michelle,
    Fantastic idea! I’d love to learn how the pilot goes in Tanzania.
    I wondered also about how these would work in areas where water is scarce, with long-term droughts, such as in southern Madagascar?
    –Francine

    Reply

  • Jon Shope - 1989

    I applaud your efforts and wish you well. Remove the barriers of cost and small Aquaponics systems will flourish. I commercially farm using Aquaponics in Indianapolis and would welcome conversation. You have my support if needed.

    Reply

  • Sue Sides

    An alumni of yours and former board member of the nonprofit I represent, showed me this article and I’m wondering how to get more information on accessing a Oasis Aquaponic Food Production System. We are a hunger relief garden and wonder if this is available if we could find a grant for it.

    Reply

    • Deborah Holdship

      Hi, Sue: I emailed your comment to Michelle Leach, the subject of the story. Also, here is a link to the website, but it has very little information. You can join a mailing list and donate there. http://www.bridge-communities.org/oasis.html

      Reply

  • Lawrence Raymond - n/a

    Hi Michelle,
    I am residing in Burma(Myanmar) where i first came in 1990.I’ve been here,on this trip,for the last two years.
    I’d like to communicate with you by email about the possibilities of your Oasis system here to help the poor farmers.
    There is an Australian scientist/inventor coming next Monday 25/09/2017 with his American partner to show/demonstrate his hand held device which instantly analyses data on rice,peanuts,soils etc.
    I believe your invention has a lot of merit and would like to start an email conversation with you.
    Kind regards
    Lawrie

    Reply

  • Erick Armando

    What a fantastic thing you are doing. I recently heard you on the radio and have been trying to learn as much as I can about what you do. Keep the great work up

    Reply

LEAVE A COMMENT: