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U OF ALBERTA UNDERGRAD FOUNDS SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURAL SYSTEM RESEARCH GROUP
By Suzanne Forcese
Four years ago had anyone told Aidan Heaman his passion would be aquaponics as a solution to sustainable agriculture he would have laughed outright. Perhaps he was too busy with piano exams at the Royal Conservatory, singing in choirs, volunteering at the Seniors Manor, organizing Meals on Wheels, performing in a community musical theatre group, participating in track and field competitions, being a member of Royal Canadian Air Cadets and attaining his Glider and Private Pilot’s Licence.
“It’s the biggest joke in my family,” 21 year old Aidan Heaman told WaterToday. Growing up on a large seed-farm in Elkhorn, Manitoba, it would appear he would have been saturated with the concept of food production and sustainability, “Nothing was further from my mind. I went to a small town school, and was good in math and science so it just seemed logical that I go into Engineering and build things. I couldn’t see what was right under my nose.”
University of Alberta Ambassador Aidan Heaman
However a seemingly synchronistic string of events was about to steer Heaman off his charted course from sustainable construction to sustainable food.|
After checking out several Universities in Canada, Heaman decided on the University of Alberta. “I have family in Alberta and the tour led by U of Alberta Ambassador students really impressed me.”
Heaman is now an Ambassador himself and part of his duties include providing tours of the campus.
“I started off in Civil Engineering but soon discovered it wasn’t a good fit, then Electrical Engineering, but backed away from that pretty quickly. Finally I settled on Mechanical Engineering because it was general enough to give me a lot of options.”
“Under my supervising professor, Dr. Marc Secanell, I was starting work for a construction company when everything shifted for me. I saw a pop-up ad on my computer about aquaponics -- how it could be the solution to world food sustainability. Suddenly my aspirations changed.”
Heaman immersed himself in an online aquaponics design course and in his research he came across the yoda of aquaponics, Lethbridge College’s, Dr. Nick Savidov.
About the same time Heaman began entertaining notions of starting a student research group on aquaponics. It was during a tour he was conducting as Ambassador that he finally heard himself say, “(for probably the hundredth time) ‘the university will even support you in starting a research group’. Wait a minute, I thought, I can do this.”
The final push came from Dr. Savidov himself. “My Dad had just driven from Manitoba to deliver my piano to me when I told him about Dr. Savidov and my Dad said let’s both go meet him. We drove up to Lethbridge and were impressed with his system – it is an excellent way to feed people. Dr. Savidov encouraged me to start a lab with students.”
Heaman went about researching a company that is involved in aquaponics and in talks with them discovered that one of the professors at U of A had an aquaponics lab based on automation.
“Dr. Rafiq Ahmad taught me a class but I had no idea.” Another synchronicity. “I spoke with him and he graciously gave me space in his lab for our research. “We are having a friendly competition. His lab is run by robots. Ours is by students.”
Many of Heaman’s friends were already growing plants. “It’s sort of the in thing now. So I got my group together and drew up a constitution.”
“I gathered my Design Team and we are making a sensing system to that if anything breaks down we get an immediate email.”
The goals of the permaculture group are to develop a long-term aquaponics research facility for student research and to connect to the community through outreach programs. “We will sell fresh fish and veggies.”
“It also becomes a teaching tool as we get students involved and share how other students can start something like this on campus.”
The system also conserves water. “We have ordered our tanks which will take an initial investment of 200 gallons of water.” Through a unique recycling and cleaning process it is estimated the only water loss will be through transpiration and evaporation.
“A recirculation system that loops water from plants to fish is the key. Fish introduce nutrients into the water and the plants take in the nutrients. There is one tank for the fish, one for the plants and a sump holding tank that balances the decrease and increase of water anywhere in the system. The levels of water are constant everywhere except in the sump holding tank.”
What was the real draw for Heaman in this endeavor was the fact that the system will require 90% less water compared to growing the same amount of vegetables in the ground. “Studies have already proven that but it is something we want to test in our lab.”
Having laid the foundation for the research group and providing learning opportunities for students, Heaman also has his compass set to the future. “After graduation, I will work with the same construction project that I started out with to learn more about business so that I can build a career out of aquaponics.”
“My mission is to go up North to remote communities and develop a business that brings sustainable food systems providing fresh fish and vegetables. My Mom taught school in the Arctic and I have always been inspired to walk in her footsteps and do something in the North.”
Heaman adds that he will also work to address food production in urban areas. “Aquaculture addresses several issues. Not only does it provide fresh food but it also eliminates the expense of transporting food and the obvious ghg emissions.
“We will use less water to produce our food and we will free up land that can be used to grow other crops that aquaponics can’t grow like wheat and hemp for instance.”
What advice does U of A Ambassador Aidan Heaman have for students who are unsure of their path?
“I must have changed my mind ten times. If you don’t know what you want to do don’t worry. Think about what you might do and see if it is possible. As long as you take the time to learn you will eventually find your way.”
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