Story by Dulcy B. Hooper
Using their home in Upperville as a testing ground, Dr. Linda Pfeiffer and Dr. Thad Jackson began experimenting with aquaponics, a combination of fish farming and hydroponics several years ago.
The couple raised tilapia fingerlings in aquariums scattered throughout their library, stored bags of fish food on their dining room table and experimented with rainwater capture and solar energy aimed at conserving resources. They constructed a small system in a greenhouse set up in the backyard of their home.
Today, a partnership born from those experiments is making Loudoun County one of the first locations in the United States for INMED’s international aquaponics program, the goal of which is to provide agricultural-based training for economically disadvantaged children and youth and the special needs community.
Based on ancient techniques used by the Aztecs, aquaponics produces crops and fish at yields higher than traditional farming, all while using no chemicals or fertilizers and focusing on the conservation of water, energy and land resources.
“Aquaponics is improving the food security and nutrition of vulnerable children and families in under-resourced communities and has helped to develop sustainable livelihoods,” said Pfeiffer, founder and CEO of INMED Partnerships for Children. In Latin America, the Caribbean and South Africa, the aquaponics program is providing “agro-entrepreneurship opportunities” for people in regions affected by destructive climate events.
The impetus for the aquaponics program began decades ago when Jackson, Pfeiffer’s husband, an immunologist and infectious disease specialist was working in Bangladesh where he founded and subsequently ran a hospital for malnourished children. While there, he conducted research on alternative sources of food, focusing on aquaponics. In Loudoun County, it will provide a different type of opportunity.
INMED which serves at-risk children and low-income families has partnered with the Paxton Trust to construct an educational aquaponics system with a greenhouse and learning center on the Paxton Campus in Leesburg. The Paxton Trust was established from the estate of Rachel Paxton in 1922 with a mission to serve children in need in Loudoun County. The trust collaborates with more than 30 other organizations focused on heath, safety and education for at-risk children.
The program will serve children and youth in need, including those living in low-income environments and those with disabilities and conditions such as autism or mental health challenges. INMED Aquaponics will offer hands-on technical training as well as business and financial planning for those interested in launching their own enterprises. There will also be field visits for younger children to learn about ecology, nutrition, biology, agriculture, and the environment.
The international nonprofit humanitarian development organization headquartered in Sterling is breaking new ground in many ways. On Oct. 7, the group held a volunteer work day which focused on clearing the vegetation at the project site.
The new IMMED center will include an aquaponics greenhouse with fish tanks and grow beds, a production facility for processing harvests, classrooms for training and space for community partners to volunteer. The INMED center on the Paxton Campus plans to collaborate with other INMED aquaponics programs globally, particularly in South Africa, where the program has been integrated into several school curricula o provide alternative methods of teaching core subjects with adapted learning for students with special needs.
“We’ve had great success with INMED Aquaponics on three continents,” said Jennifer Smith, INMED’s U.S. programs director and founder of the Paxton Campus. “It only makes sense to bring it to Loudoun to help us expand our programs at our Opportunity Center in Sterling to narrow the opportunity gaps that still exist.”
“We are so thankful for community partners like CyrusOne, HITT Contracting and Blue Ridge Landscape Design for helping us kick off this project,” said Smith. Sunbelt Rentals and Anderson Equipment Company donated the heavy machinery. “We could not have cleared the site without them!”
“INMED Aquaponics has been transformational for underserved populations around the world, and it will be a real game-changer for the autism and special needs community here in Loudoun County,” added Smith. ML
This article first appeared in the November 2019 issue of Middleburg Life.