When Will Suh’s friends found out he was into aquaponics, they stopped being his friends. He could commit career suicide on his own.
For many, particularly sustainability types and produce lovers, aquaponics is beautiful. Such a system’s closed water loop and ability to convert fish waste into fertilizer with the help of benevolent microorganisms allow it to produce as much as eight times more than conventional ag with a tiny fraction of the water and zero gnarly elements like pesticides or runoff. As droughts deepen, ocean dead zones expand and food insecurity grows, that type of ag gets more and more compelling. Plus the resulting produce ranks as some of the lushest around.
Suh and his former friends studied national security, nuclear nonproliferation and terrorism at Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey, destined for jobs in government. When he said aquaponics, they heard “hydroponics” – and “marijuana” – which in turn meant “background checks going badly.” No way they were hanging out with the international environmental policy hippies Suh was taking up with.
But he saw things differently, starting with how MIIS trained them to treat symptoms, not the sickness. “They were only teaching us how to kill terrorists, not how to stop them,” he says. “What if you give the places that [breed] terrorists jobs, systems and education, access to good food and good water?”
Chief among the enviro “hippies” he was drawn to was James Galvin. Galvin came to MIIS to assimilate the tools to take aquaponics to food deserts around the world. Everywhere he looked in the field, it was hobbyists or business; he wanted to cultivate the joy of the former and the big-picture profitability of the latter, while honoring an allegiance to Mother Nature formed by years of surfing, mountaineering and ice-climbing.
He started a Thirst and Hunger Club on campus. Seventeen people showed to help him build a small aquaponics farm at the school garden. Soon he, Suh and three other environmental policy students/co-founders Janna Ratzlaff, Matt Shipley and Justin Wright were collecting investors for Both Co. The name came as they dug out the fish pond for their flagship farm in a Del Rey Oaks backyard granted them by a nature – and produce-loving friend. They wanted to affect food justice in both first – and third-world places. They wanted both profit and pleasure, work and play, meaning and money.
“We’re balancing business and happiness, which is why we’re called what we are,” Galvin says. “There’s a lot of boths involved. We don’t see why we have to be limited to a choice between joy and profit.”
Today the backyard farm is a verdant food nerdvana tucked into rising terraces, with koi and catfish waste feeding huge heirloom tomatoes, dinosaur kale, Genovese basil, rainbow chard and dragon-head edamame. Hummingbirds flit about. Big honeybees roam from hives near the top of the terraces, next to recycled desks that double as Both’s “boardroom.”
Galvin stood there July 3, after another holiday of constant work, and let out a big exhale. “It’s finally complete,” he said. After seven months of build-out, the system is now flowing, stable and growing.
“I can go home and have a beer and come back and it will be exactly how I left it,” he said, “but worth more money.”
More good news is accumulating, as Galvin’s substantial enthusiasm widens. He’s almost as excited at the community involvement as the science of the system. “How do we find all these helpful people?” he says. “That’s the question we ask! How are people showing up the day before we need something, saying ‘We’ve been watching you the whole time’!?”
Ever-increasing partnerships include a deal with Central Coast Juicery to use produce pulp to feed Both’s worms, which create compost and furnish fish food. A biodigester pizza oven is in the works. In keeping with a charter that dictates at least 10 percent of revenue (not profit) goes to thirst and hunger relief, Both started donating to Food Bank for Monterey County last month, with payload expected to triple.
The website www.bothco.com goes live as this issue hits newstands. A new fundraising push features dinners for two to six people with food almost entirely raised on site; massage and yoga can even be added. “Vehicle-free” food has begun, with the first four donors to the co-op receiving local drought sensitive food with a negative footprint because of bike delivery and carbon offsets.
Both’s first major consulting gig came into the fold last month. An aspiring home chef with a fortune made in business craves an aquaponics farm at his Monterey home so he can impress friends and supply high-end restaurants with vivid product like white-spine chard.
Then a certain Earth-loving, world-famous singer wanted to talk about using some local land – south-facing, with a million-gallon pond and 11 acres, no less – to put together a much grander system.
Back at MIIS, the security students avoid Suh, even if he pursues security on what is, in many ways, a more fundamental level. But MIIS itself doesn’t. They send prospective students to visit the farm. They mount a display on campus linking people to a video of how it works. School employees have started visiting the flagship site and planning retreats. Fittingly enough, they’re from the career office. Seems they know something Suh’s former friends can’t learn in a classroom.
• Salinas Brickhouse is now open in old Callejon and Old Town Bar & Grill at 66 W. Alisal in Oldtown. Organic soups, homemade Mexican fare 7am-9pm.
• Last week serial restaurant starter Bill Lee filed a for a new business name: Thin Ice Catering. Truly.
• Trailside Cafe in Monterey closes July 26. Its new location rolls on in Carmel Valley next to Chalk Rock’s tasting room near Kasey’s gas station.
• The River Road Wine Trail is rocking: live music plays on the Hahn patio noon-3pm every Sunday in July and August, and at Scheid’s Greenfield tasting room noon-3pm July 19 and August 30.
• The Cheese Shop Garlic Festival is back at Carmel Plaza. More on the blog.
• Local chef Jeff Rogers, who spent time with Quail Lodge and Monterey Bay Aquarium, among other spots, had a fun mission at hand as food pointman for a big new music festival in Sparta, Kentucky called NiFi Fest with Hank Williams Jr. and Miranda Lambert headlining. Only now the festival is postponed indefinitely.
• Carmel Bach Festival holds Triple Play Monday – caramel bock fest beer and appetizers for starters, a concert by Pete Hanson and a wine and cheese reception – starting 6:30pm July 20, at Sunset Center Terrace ($25, bachfestival.org/tripleplaymonday).
• Over at Salinas Sports Tavern in Oldtown (422-5652), Chef Felipe Fierros serves up the ultimate pub gut bomb: The garbage plate ($13.95) means fries, sausage, burger patty, melted cheese, and spicy homemade sauce served over pasta. Recommended Zantac chaser.
• Wine from the Heart on the breezeway next to Portola Hotel in Monterey is no more – now it’s Sovino Wine Bar & Merchant. The ribbon cutting soiree happens 5-6:30pm Tuesday, July 28.
• Brewmaster Kevin Clark and Exec Chef Jason Giles’ monthly brewers dinner comes Aug. 3 and will sell out – five courses (including thyme-cured pork chop and fois gras torchon), five beers (Britney is Back sour ale and barrel-aged imperial red) in barrel room ($70++, 649-2699).
• Ben Franklin: “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”