Wider Horizons

While Charlie Shultz has been influencing the development of aquaponics in Alberta for more than 15 years,Charlie Shultz he just arrived in the province, and at Lethbridge College, in 2013.

Shultz is one of a handful of researchers in Canada who works in the aquaponics field, a research discipline named by combining the words aquaculture – farming fish or other aquatic species such as shrimp, lobster, mussels or oysters – and hydroponics – growing plants in a soilless medium by feeding them nutrient-rich water in a controlled environment and using either natural or artificial light. He’s taken the bold step of relocating from the tropical U.S. Virgin Islands to Lethbridge College to further a research question that he absolutely cannot answer on a warm Caribbean island: How do various aquaponics systems work in colder climates? It turns out that Lethbridge, with its well-established aquatic technology program at the college, intense summer sun, winter chills and wildly-variable and wind-driven weather throughout the year, is a perfect spot for Shultz to test his theories.

“When I was at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), I didn’t have to spend a penny on a greenhouse, I didn’t have to spend any money heating, no money on lighting,” Shultz says. “Success there was relatively straightforward, but I wanted to push myself and find out how to make aquaponics work in a temperate climate.” Shultz also spent two years at Kentucky State University working on a project that tested different types of lighting for aquaponics systems, with a goal to determine how efficient various types of lights are in both commercial and home-based systems.

Shultz says his Alberta connection began in the late 1990s with an international course offered at UVI to people interested in learning more about the aquaponics process.

“We had people from around the world attend, including some people from Alberta Agriculture. A researcher from the Brooks, Alta., research station took our course, learned our techniques, went back to Brooks and got the money to build a pilot project UVI system in a greenhouse.”

Being on the leading edge of a new type of farming or sustainable food technology has as many advantages as it has challenges. Shultz says that there is a significant amount of interest from people who are looking to either start an aquaponics operation or diversify their aquaculture businesses, but there aren’t many people trained to properly blend the two types of food production.

“This is one industry bottleneck that we are going to help solve,” Shultz says. “People are calling me and asking, ‘Who can we hire? No one has this experience…’ so we are going to be developing courses and other types of programming that will see Lethbridge College emerge as the premiere location for this type of training in Canada.”

With only one other program of its kind in North America, Shultz says the potential to train undergraduate students and offer professional development or certification to existing and potential business owners will bring a significant benefit to the industry. “Because we are at the early stages of our program development, what I am doing right now is putting out feelers to industry,” Shultz says. “So much of what we do is industry driven. I am asking them if there is a need for our programs and our people. I am getting a lot of ‘yes!’ answers.”

An Innovation Enhancement Grant of $200,000 over two years from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) was the first piece of the puzzle to fall into place to support Shultz’s research, teaching and the aquaponics business development program. Partners in the project include Trimark Engineering Ltd. of Lethbridge, Dr. Nick Savidov of Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development and the Alberta Aquaculture Association. Additional funding is being sought from other sources to enhance the lab and greenhouse spaces, and add capacity to the fish breeding and growth areas.

The other aspect of Shultz’s operation with an industry connection is research that supports the development of new products. He expects to increase the working relationships with import regulators, food inspection agencies and the Alberta government to ensure that any new market fish species introduced into the province meet strict standards. Shultz adds that the college’s Aquaculture Centre of Excellence (ACE) is uniquely positioned to work with Alberta Agriculture to move industry-focused projects forward once approval is received, since Alberta Agriculture representatives are already key members of the facility’s working group.

Dr. Edith Olson is Chair of Agriculture and Life Sciences and has been involved in research in soil and water quality. She says the partnerships, the researchers’ enthusiasm and the possibilities brought about by adding people and resources to the aquaponics program will have many benefits beyond fish and plants. “We have an engaged and enthusiastic number of researchers at Lethbridge College who are working on very tangible projects that not only meet rigorous scientific standards, but have an equal amount of value to the community as potentially commercial inventions, products or services,” Olson says.

“Our ACE facility and the aquaponics program is just one instance of how we combine learning and applied research,” she adds. “The same concepts extend to our Engineering Technologies, Environmental Sciences, Agriculture and Wind Turbine Technician programs, among others. Our research is also different from, and can potentially complement, the pure research taking place at the university. We are finding that there are a number of challenges, and no shortage of interesting projects, for our researchers to consider.”

Olson added that the model for courses and professional development programming in the works for the aquaponics program could be easily transferred to other programs. “This would not only benefit current students, but industry representatives, our own researchers and possibly other community partners,” she says. “We are always looking for interesting opportunities to diversify our programming.”

Wider Horizons
Bob Cooney
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