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Martin Niwinski - An Aquaponic superhero at ECOLIFE

Daniel Robards

a month ago

5 min read

Martin Niwinski has a sharp eye to see problems in an aquaponic system before they become too serious. A superpower developed over time.

Teaching others how to grow nutrient dense food in a sustainable manner seems to be an integral part of your work and vision. Tell me more why these are so close to all you are doing?

Aquaponics is part of the solution to fixing our destructive food system. So much of our natural resources are destroyed or tied up in food production that using them more wisely is essential. People are really disconnected from growing their own food and teaching them to grow their own is very empowering.

What is the first thing you do when you arrive at your grow space? What is the last thing you do when you leave your grow space?

The first thing I do is make the rounds and observe. I look for anything that is out of place, any plant issues, watch the fish for a minute, just looking for anything that needs immediate attention. If something goes wrong in aquaponics (or growing in general) you need to act fast. The last thing I do is similar, make the rounds. Looking for any hose that got left on or tools that were left out, etc.

Martin Niwinski Teaching

Tell us more about ECOLIFE Conservation. How did Aquaponics become a part of your organization?

Aquaponics has been a part of ECOLIFE since it was founded in 2003. Our mission is to protect wildlife, natural resources and the people who depend on them. Everything we do has to benefit nature and people so a system of farming that makes use of waste streams and uses very little water fits right in. Agriculture is the number one cause of habitat destruction. Teaching people to grow with aquaponics is a great way to teach STEM subjects, nutrition, and job skills.

Where do you see the future farmers (next generation) and their role in regenerative agriculture and aquaponics?

As time goes on aquaponics will become more and more important. We are starting to see hotter in the past decade. The water situation where I am in Southern California as well as many other places across the globe is unsustainable, we simply need to be smarter with how water is used. 70% of the freshwater in the world is used for agriculture. Future farmers will need to produce more food using less water as population increase demands both. Also our soils are being depleted of their nutrition which is where regenerative agriculture comes in. Aquaponics can help play a role in that too if done correctly. I am optimistic about the future of farming, it’s becoming cool with younger generations again.

What is the biggest obstacle in establishing a successful grow space for the beginner?

I think the learning curve. Being successful over time means avoiding catastrophic failures, which can happen quickly. To respond quickly you need to diagnose the problem. Luckily the amount of info on aquaponics and the ability to find that info is better than ever. When I first started there were only two forums and you had to sort through a lot. I would say if starting out, learn more before you start and when you think you are ready to start try to learn a little more. It is good to learn from mistakes but better to learn from the mistakes of others, which are well documented in Facebook groups, YouTube and other forums. Also, start small.

Do you have a favorite crop to grow? Why? Is there a crop you would absolutely not grow again?

Cucumbers grow insanely fast in aquaponics, are beautiful plants and delicious. I had some okra seeds someone gave me and planted them not knowing what okra looked like when it grew. All I knew was that they grew it in the UVI system so I figured it would be foolproof. It grew super fast, 6’ tall, ants loved the flowers, giant cable-like roots, the stem was so thick it broke two rafts and then okra isn’t that tasty, so never again.

Why is educational outreach (STEM) and inspiring students a vital part of the future of aquaponics and food security?

The vast majority of farmers in the US are over 65. Their kids are not taking up the family business like in the past so there is a gap there that needs to be filled. Also I think we are headed towards smaller, more local farms and more backyard growing. Covid-19 made it apparent that our food system can be fragile and the more people that grow the better.

What do you do when you are not growing and running the ECOLIFE Conservation greenhouses?

We have a food forest at my house so being around the fruit trees brings a little peace from the chaos of having a toddler and baby. I like to read and hike these days.

Thank you, Martin, for your dedication and exploration of Aquaponics.

Daniel Robards

Co-founder & CBDO