Photos: Chris Killen
When I bumped into Chris Killen and he told me about the Watsonville-based nonprofit where he works, The Green Water Garden Project, I immediately knew the idea had serious legs. Not only does the organization, which started in 2013, give individuals with special needs a sense of purpose, it is also helping to pioneer a new and sustainable way of farm- ing—all while saving water. These guys are truly capturing three butterflies with one net.
Santa Cruz Waves: Tell us a little bit about The Green Water Garden Project.
The Green Water Garden Project (GWG): The Green Water Garden Project is a nonprofit social enterprise that provides supported employment to adults with disabilities. In the not so distant future we’d like to extend that out to other groups like our veterans, at-risk youth, etc. We want everyone with a disability to have the opportunity to find, keep and enjoy productive employment in their community.
SCW: What is aquaponics?
GWG: Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. Basically, we have tanks of water where fish and plants can exist and thrive in a symbiotic environment. The fish produce nitrates, which the plants use as nutrients. The flavor of our produce has gotten rave reviews because of the way they are grown. Instead of having to use a bunch of energy absorbing nutrients from the soil, the plants rest in a warm bath of nutrient-rich water. They mature quicker, are inherently organic, and use 95 percent less water than traditional agriculture.
By themselves, aquaculture and hydroponics have short- comings. One of the issues with aquaculture is the waste that’s generated from the fish that then has to be disposed of. With hydroponics, you have a similar issue where chemical fertilizers are added to the water and then, eventually, that water needs to be thrown out. Combining the two schools of thought creates an environment of minimal waste and zero carbon footprint.
SCW: And how is this method utilized by the GWG?
GWG: We use aquaponics as our vessel to employ those with disabilities. Our garden is tailored, and can be further tailored to meet the needs of our workers. For example, our beds are raised off the ground so that one doesn’t need to bend over to work. It’s right there at waist level. Our current workers love the work. They understand that it is meaningful to the environment and that they are a part of something that can one day change the way we farm.
SCW: Wow, that is really fantastic. So you guys are giving those with disabilities a meaningful work experience as well as producing food in a sustainable way while using less water.
GWG: Yes, and donating a portion of that food to the Second Harvest Food Bank.
SCW: You’re currently located in Watsonville. Can you set up these facilities in more urban areas, as well?
GWG: Absolutely, and that is our goal. At this point we have expended all of our resources on our ‘test’ garden [which is now in production]. We are reaching out to the community for their help to aid us in spreading this mission first here at home in Santa Cruz, then to the rest of the Central Coast and so on. If it were up to us, we would have some sort of opera- tion in every metropolitan city by the year 2020. Imagine the impact of that on a community. Bringing people of all walks of life together to produce sustainable seafood and organic veggies that can then be distributed back into the community to feed the hungry. Gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.
SCW: Wow … We just got goose bumps, as well. What about selling these as backyard set-ups to everyday people and using that money to move forward with the GWG?
GWG: You guys are good, and yes, creating a scalable, modular model that can be available to the public is in progress. But we also want to make sure that we stay true to our hometown and have this community dialed in before we head out and spread our wings too much.
SCW: Well, as soon as you guys have a backyard kit ready, we want one. How can our readers get more info and donate to your cause?
GWG: Consider it done. Great question—there are many levels of involvement that we would love from Santa Cruz. First and foremost, go check out our website, greenwatergarden.com. Have a look around and then visit our social media outlets (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) and give us a follow. From there we can use produce boxes for our produce to be delivered in. We’re doing many fundraisers throughout the year, so stay tuned to our website and social media channels for news on that if you’d like to run a race or help out at an event.
And finally, if you have the means, donations, sponsorships, and the like are what make the wheels turn. We truly appreciate any help we can get.