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Diving into Aquaponics with Joshua Shultz of Cedar Creek Permaculture

Joshua Shultz is a futurist, the founder, owner, and operator of Cedar Creek Permaculture in Delton Michigan. As a sophomore at Western Michigan University he interned at at Cape Eleuthera Institute (CEI) in The Bahamas. After graduating with a bachelors in business management and environmental science, he returned to CEI as the Permaculture Manager and greatly expanded the existing commercial aquaponics system for the institute.

GLPP: What brought you to permaculture?

Joshuas profile pic for aquaponic articleJoshua Shultz: I grew up on a little lake West of Delton, Michigan with my Mom and brother, Aaron. My Mom had a half acre garden and grew a large quantity of our food when I was smaller.  She also found an old apple orchard grown up in the woods out back and revived the old apple trees with intensive pruning.  In addition she planted some of her own trees to increase the varieties we had to eat. Through watching her I learned to love growing plants and pruning fruit trees.

When I interned at CEI I worked with the permaculture manager doing aquaponics and landscaping/ permaculture.  This was my first exposure to permaculture and while there I got to meet and work with Chris Shanks (who would later become my PDC teacher in Costa Rica) as well as Ben Falk from Whole System Design in Vermont.  Ben was doing the master plan for the school that summer and I was able to sit in on the meetings and join in some of the discussions.  This was an invaluable experience in developing my own methods of design consultation.

Bahamas Aquaponics system

CEI’s aquaponics system in The Bahamas. Photo courtesy Joshua Shultz.

My experiences in The Bahamas left a lasting impact on my life.  I knew that there was a system of design out there that incorporated all of the isolated elements that I had been studying up to that point; natural building, wastewater treatment, food, natural materials, and human societies.  Once back to the U.S. I started reading everything I could find in regards to permaculture while finishing up my last two years at university.  This included the classic books from Mollison and Holmgren; The Designer’s Manual and Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.

GLPP: How did you make the transition after graduating?

JS: I heard that the lady I had interned under at CEI moved on to other opportunities, so I applied for her position.  Since they knew me, my brother who still works there, and the fact that I knew the systems there from my time as an intern, they hired me on. This was a great opportunity and I am grateful for CEI taking a chance with such an inexperienced permaculturist taking over their 18 acre site.

Shaded aquaponics in The Bahamas

Creating a cool, shaded microclimate was important for success in the Bahamas. Photo courtesy Joshua Shultz.

I decided to leave the island to come back to the US to promote permaculture and start my own farm and aquaponics system. The island I was living on was only 5 feet above sea level and I recognized all of the work I was doing there would be underwater, probably within my lifetime. From afar I had noticed that the permaculture movement in Michigan seems to be lagging a bit behind the rest of the country, which is lagging a bit behind the rest of the world.

Now that I am back in Michigan I am designing my family farm as a mixed use permaculture farm along with my father Brian.  He is using our existing hay fields for raising grass fed cattle which he sells directly as ½ or ¼ shares to his customers. We are in the process of transforming 1½ acres of hayfield that is too hilly to comfortably mow into a plant nursery and linear food forest with field crops in between. We are also in the process of building an earth bermed heated greenhouse this spring to house a small commercial aquaponics system to supply local restaurants with fresh lettuce and herbs year round. The master plan includes a co-gen wood gasification unit which will power the homestead and greenhouse while also heating them through infloor radiant hot water.

GLPP: What is the same and what is different about aquaponics in tropics and temperate climate?

JS: The general idea is the same but all of the details change.  In the Bahamas I could breed the fish for about 8 months a year with no heating of the water needed.  I could grow outside using only sunlight with no artificial light needed.  A challenge in that system was that our water was much harder to come by in The Bahamas. To solve that issue, we designed the system to rely on rainwater collected off the roof.

Michigan Aquaponics System

Joshua tending plants in his current Michigan Greenhouse. Photo courtesy Joshua Shultz.

Water in Michigan is much easier to come by. You can just pump groundwater out here in the country. In the city, water would become more of an issue and probably require some sort of reverse osmosis (RO) or rainwater collection. Here, the temperature and lighting are big issues to address, which probably require some artificial inputs to achieve the same year round growth that we were enjoying down there.

The soil here is also much richer making it easier to just grow plants in the ground instead of investing in this technical system. The reasons for choosing to use aquaponics in a climate where you could grow directly in the ground are two fold; the first being the cold winters which limit growth during certain times of the year and the second being that by maximizing my production of tender plants in an intense indoor aquaponics system, I am leaving more space outdoors for perennial tree crops and field crops which don’t need to be produced fresh year round, store well, and don’t need the same kind of protection from predators.

Tasty plants in the aquaponics system

From top row foreground back: romaine lettuce, cilantro, basil, garlic. Bottom row: mixed lettuces with two small cilantro plants. Plants down below in pots, not part of aquaponics system, are Pawpaw and grapes. Photo courtesy Joshua Shultz.

GLPP: What about specific types of plants and species?

JS: The plants I am growing are very similar to what I was doing in the Bahamas; romaine lettuce and culinary herbs. A lot of effort went into creating a shaded, cool microclimate for the lettuce to grow in a such hot place. This could have been simplified by growing something else more suited to the climate but nobody was interested in that as lettuce was familiar to the tourists we had from North America.  In Michigan, I plan on growing the lettuce and herbs primarily for direct sale to restaurants using the season advantages of the heated greenhouse to recover the expense and initial investment into the system.

GLPP: As your system develops here, what are you planning on doing the same, what will you modify?

JS: I am going to try moving away from styrofoam floating rafts here and may experiment with drip systems on perennial plants (maybe even trees).  The design of my grow beds is very similar to the design I came up with in The Bahamas, using cement blocks to form U shaped deep water beds, and will allow flexibility in how things are grown and managed while minimizing synthetic materials.  I may go with a different species other than Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) that is perhaps less suited to aquaponics but more suited to the climate and commands a better market price.  Growing Power in WI is experimenting with hybrid yellow perch (Perca flavescens) and I may also be looking into using them as the foundation to my system.  We will see.

Joshua will be teaching an upcoming class on aquaponics at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute and will also be hosting and co-teaching a PDC focused on large scale systems design with Midwest Permaculture in May of this year.

profile photo courtesy Kate Marnul and Joshua Shultz

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