Snyder’s reception at Old Town tonight makes me wonder how long it’ll be before he leaves Ann Arbor

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A year or so ago, when Rick Snyder announced that he’d be selling his house in the gated community outside of Ann Arbor and moving to a million dollar condo downtown, I’m sure it seemed like a good idea. Even though he’d done things in office that people didn’t like, folks still, for the most part, were happy to see him, and treated him with respect. That, however, is apparently beginning to change thanks to his role in the poisoning of Flint and the subsequent coverup.

The photo above was taken an hour or so ago by Pete Larson’s son Miles, who just happened to be at Old Town when the Governor came in. Apparently at least four people who I know where in the bar at the time, and their stories are relatively consistent. All of them, for instance, tell of a guy who, on his way out of the restaurant, yelled “Rick Snyder, you fucked up!”, opening the door for others to begin expressing their displeasure with our Governor. A few, from what I’m told, made comments about the water that he was drinking. Some apparently went so far as to address him directly, directing comments toward him like, “How about another nice glass of water, Snyder?” A vast majority, though, just sat by in angry silence, pissed off that the Governor had invaded their favorite local watering hole, bringing the specter of what had happened in Flint along with him.

While I’m sure there are still places that he’d be welcome, like the West End Grill, where he’s a regular, I have a feeling, as evidenced by what just happened at the Old Town, that our Governor’s beloved Ann Arbor is growing smaller and smaller with each passing day. And it wouldn’t surprise me at all to hear, in a few months, that he and his wife had decided to move back to a gated community, where people can’t post wanted posters outside their door, as folks were doing yesterday.

Even with everything that he’s done, I still can’t help but feel sorry for him… With that said, though, I’m glad to know that some people in Ann Arbor are making him aware of how they feel. I think, if we’re going to see meaningful action from him, it will likely be because of things like the reception he received tonight at Old Town, and not because of protestors at the capital, or Facebook posts by the likes of Michael Moore. I think it’s incredibly important to Snyder how he’s perceived by his peers in Ann Arbor, and I know that, when he ran for Governor, this is not how he imagined things playing out. He wanted to be the “tough nerd” who solved all of our problems and put us on the path to a brighter future. Sadly, though, it didn’t turn out that way. He tried to run our state like a business, and, as a result, a city and its people have been ruined. And I’m afraid, now, he’s lost his hometown too.

Posted in Ann Arbor, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 50 Comments

Saying they “delayed our action plan,” Rick Snyder lays the blame for the Flint water disaster at the feet of “career civil servants” who cared more about process than people

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You have to give him credit for having chutzpah. It took him a few days, but our Governor, with he help of multiple consultants and a few top flight PR firms, is attempting not just to deflect blame for what happened in Flint, but actually turn the deadly public health crisis into an anti-government parable that serves both his purposes, and those of his wealthy donors.

Snyder’s first so-called apology to the people of Flint came during the holidays, between Christmas and New Years. It came by way of press release. “I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened,” he said in the release. “And I want all Michigan citizens to know that we will learn from this experience, because Flint is not the only city that has an aging infrastructure.”

As far as apologies go, it wasn’t very satisfying.

“Hey,” he might as well have said, “It sucks that your kids have brain damage, but we’re going to learn from it… Happy New Year.”

He clearly didn’t know at the time just how big this story was going to get.

Within a very short time, though, the Flint water crisis became international news. Before Snyder knew what was happening, Cher was calling for his public execution and his poor handling of the public health crisis had become a subject of discussion on the presidential campaign trail. People not just in Michigan, but around the entire country, began to refer to this as the defining moment of his administration, likening his less than speedy response to the disaster in Flint to the Bush administration’s handling of hurricane Katrina… Clearly Snyder had to say something more than, “We’re going to learn from this,” but what?

I should add here, for those of you who have never had dealings with folks who work in public relations, that there’s a sub-specialty within the field known as “crisis communications.” People engaged in this line of work study disasters and how both people and companies either survive them, or get torn apart by them. They study things like the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, and they convey the lessons learned from such events to their clients. While I, of course, have no way of knowing what Governor Snyder was told, I think it’s highly likely that someone in this profession made it very clear to him that, if he didn’t show some emotion and take full responsibility, that he would not survive this. [They likely also told him that, in time, he could begin to shift the blame away from himself, but we’ll get to that in a minute.] And that’s exactly what he did.

Telling the people of Flint that they “deserve better,” a teary-eyed Snyder took the occasion last week, during his State of the State address, to say “I’m sorry most of all that I let you down. You deserve better.” And, for the most part, my sense is that it worked. People liked that he took ownership of the problem, and pledged to do whatever it took to “fix it.”

Of course, at just around the same time that he was telling the people of Flint, “(This is) a crisis you did not create, and could not have prevented,” he was also laying the groundwork for phase two of the communications plan.

On the same day that he gave his State of the State speech, Snyder also talked with Ron Fournier of the National Journal, telling him that, while he does take full responsibility, it should be noted that this problem really happened because of long-serving government employees whom he had never even met. “This was a case where we had people who had been in these jobs for years, (who) hadn’t gotten the change memo yet saying there’s got to be a better way of doing things,” Snyder said in the interview. “So they kept doing things the way they have.”

So this terrible thing that we’re still watching unfold in Flint didn’t happen because Snyder fundamentally changed the way state government was run, removing checks and balances at every level, and giving unelected Emergency Managers free rein over cities to do things like slash costs by giving people untreated river water to drink, but in spite of it. This happened, according to Snyder, because, try as you might, you just can’t fix everything “when you come in from the outside.” [God knows how bad things could have gotten in Flint, had Snyder not been out Governor. There would probably be bodies in the streets right now.]

So the problem wasn’t that he, by employing his brilliant business mind, and taking advantage of every loophole at his disposal, had created the least transparent and accountable state government in the entire country, but that not everyone in government got “the memo” that they were supposed to do more with less, and be more accountable, despite the culture of unaccountability all around them… Makes sense, right?

Before we go any farther, I should mention that, as of right now, few seem to buy Snyder’s revisionist take on where responsibility lies for the disaster in Flint. The following clip comes from yesterday’s Washington Post, where opinion writer Dana Milbank made it very clear who was at fault.

(T)he Flint disaster, three years in the making, is not a failure of government generally. It’s the failure of a specific governing philosophy: Snyder’s belief that government works better if run more like a business…

Snyder undertook an arrogant public-policy experiment, underpinned by the ideological assumption that the “experience set” of corporate-style managers was superior to the checks and balances of democracy. This is why Flint happened…

Unwilling to accept that narrative, Snyder has begun to double down on this notion that the problem in Flint was caused by government employees engaged in “business as usual.” [By the way, I don’t know why people on television are letting Snyder get away with saying that this was a result of people in Flint engaged in doing “business as usual,” when, to my knowledge, no one in Flint civil service had ever poisoned the entire city before.] And, toward that end, he’s beginning to pepper his speeches with a few phrases that must have tested well with focus groups. My favorite is “career civil servants.”

Here’s footage of Snyder on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, telling us how this was the work of “career civil servants” who were too caught up in regulations and technical reports to just do the right thing. [Mentions of “career civil servants” happen at 3:40 and 6:02.]

So not only is Snyder blaming “big government,” but, in the process, he’s also suggesting that regulations actually caused this. According to Snyder, if you can believe it, he actually wanted to move faster in response to what was happening in Flint, but he was told to wait for reports.

And I’m not making this up.

Civil servants, Synder told Fox News today, “delayed our action plan.”

Yup, if only the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule hadn’t slowed them down, they might have actually been able to save some of those kids in Flint from permanent brain damage…

It’s like something out of an Orwellian Koch brother wet dream.

And some on the right, as you might expect, have already joined Snyder in his attempt to reframe the narrative of what happened in Flint and push this version of events. See, for example, this recent tweet from the folks at ALEC, who would like nothing better than to see Snyder-like “reforms” spread across the nation.

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It will be interesting to see how this evolves over time, and which of these two warring narratives comes out on top. It probably goes without saying, but my hope is that, when all is said and done, our experiences in Flint aren’t used to justify a coordinated push for even smaller government and less environmental regulation. Given the state of the world, however, and what we’ve seen over the past few decades, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if people tried. They are, if nothing else, relentless.

[The photo at the top of the page, taken in downtown Ann Arbor, near the Governor’s Main Street condo, comes courtesy of Ann Arbor City Council’s Kirk Westphal.]

Posted in History, Michigan, Observations, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Is the government really coming for the guns of climate change deniers?

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Sometimes, on my way home from work, if I can’t find anything else on the radio, I listen to the ranting of WAAM’s Terry “Thayrone X” Hughes. This evening, I happened to tune in during a segment on Obama’s plans to confiscate the guns of America’s self-described “patriots” by exploiting new federal rules intended to help keep deadly weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill. [The quote you see above is what I heard immediately upon clicking over to AM 1600.]

Well, as I was intrigued, I started poking around tonight after putting the kids to bed, and found not only the online archive of Thayrone’s show, which I’m listening to in its entirety now, but the article on Breitbart.com that inspired the rant I’d caught earlier. Here’s a clip from that article, which is titled “Five Proofs Democrats Are on Verge of Gun Confiscation.”

A new Obama administration healthcare rule “allowing health care [sic] providers to report the names of mentally ill patients to an FBI firearms background check system.” Because the definition of “mentally ill” is arbitrary, FrontPage Mag predicts the moniker of “mentally ill” will begin to be applied to “any belief or behavior that the left would like to stamp out– fervent adherence to the Constitution, homeschooling, and climate change ‘denial,’ for example – enabling the government to categorize those gun owners as mentally ill and disarm them.”

Personally, I’ve seen no evidence of this in my own life, but, then again, I probably don’t fit the “proud clinger” profile. Maybe doctors really are beginning to single people out, asking them to rate their love of the Constitution on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the most fervent. And, maybe, when people come into the hospital presenting signs of rabid conservativism (like Gadsden flag fanny packs and screaming eagle t-shirts), they really are being held for observation. If you’ve heard about such things happening, let me know and I’ll get word to Thayrone so that he can draft up plans for an A Team-inspired breakout.

While it’s true that I don’t believe we need semi-automatic assault rifles in this country, it’s also true that I believe that we, as Americans, should be free to be stupid without fear of being taken into custody and shown photos of Cliven Bundy and Ayn Rand while doctors examine the readings of blood flow monitors attached to our genitals… I may disagree with these people, but no one deserves to be labeled a potential terrorist just because he become engorged at the thought of a shirtless Donald Trump holding a rifle, overseeing a Mexican work crew build a wall.

[note: I didn’t make the graphic above. It comes courtesy of the Ted Cruz presidential campaign. It was created by Cruz staff as part of a recent fundraising pitch.]

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While it’s nice that people are sending bottles of water to Flint, I can’t help but wonder where all of that money is going

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I’ve been thinking a lot today about the millions and millions of little, single-serving bottles of water being sent to Flint by people around the world… On the whole, I think it’s a good thing. And I love knowing I live in a world where people so desperately want to help that they’re willing to pony up their own money and send send either a few bottles, or a few hundred thousand, to people who they don’t even know. With that said, though, I can’t help but wonder where all of the money spent on that bottled water is going.

I should add right up front, before I launch into my rant agains the bottle water industry, that I really don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. I don’t know if, when people are buying water in bulk to send to Flint, the water companies are selling that water at cost. They may be. And they may also be sending water on their own to Flint, without any promise of payment at all. I don’t know. I mean, I heard that Absopure, which is a Michigan-based water company started a campaign where they’re matching purchases for Flint bottle for bottle, but I don’t know if the big players… like the Nestlés of the world… are doing anything similar. And, in their defense, they could be. My guess, however, is that they’re likely making money off of what is happening in Flint, and that bothers me.

Nestlé, by the way, is the biggest of the “big five’, when it comes to bottled water. As of this past summer, they owned 29.8% of the global bottled water market. And they’re growing. According to today’s news, the Swiss company’s stock has risen 2.48% over just the past five days. I have no way of knowing, of course, if that has anything to with the fact that 100,000 people in Flint have just sworn off tap water completely in favor of using bottled water, but I don’t imagine it hurts… If I were a smarter man, and a little more evil, I’d buy stock. Instead, though, I just thought that I’d complain about it online.

Out of curiosity, I just did some quick poking around to see how much, if anything, Nestlé had given to Snyder over the years. Maybe, in another state, a search like that would yield some results. In Michigan, though, where we just won the title of the least transparent and accountable state in the nation, such searches don’t generally yield much. I mean, I found that Snyder supported a partnership with Nestlé that allowed the company to supply “nutritional expertise” in Michigan schools, over the protests of many who felt as though said materials had a corporate bias, but I didn’t find any evidence of the company actually giving Snyder money. But, like I said, I wouldn’t expect to find evidence of that, seeing as how our Governor, who ran for office promising increased transparency, made sure that the identity of his donors stayed private by incorporating his “Nerd Fund” as a nonprofit “social welfare” organization, thereby ensuring all records remain secret. And, as we know, we can’t FOIA Snyder’s correspondences, as Michigan is one of only two states in the entire union where such things are exempted from the Freedom of Information Act.

So I don’t know if there’s any way to find out how tied to “Big Water” our Governor is. I do know, however, that his former Chief of Staff, Dennis Muchmore, is married to Deb Muchmore, who happens to be a corporate spokesperson for Nestlé. If her name sounds familiar, it might be because, not too many years ago, she was the one explaining to us in Michigan why it was OK for Nestlé’s Ice Mountain brand to export so much of our most precious natural resource from Mecosta County. “Nestlé brings jobs and supports the economy,” she said at the time. “Ice Mountain cannot by law stop the flow of springs when they withdraw water,” Muchmore added. “They have not dried up any wells. No streams have dried up. No ecosystems have been harmed. The science backs this up.” Of course, this didn’t prove to be the case. As the result of a subsequent court case, in which it was brought to light that the Michigan Department for Environmental Quality (MDEQ) had seen a “measurable impact on certain waters and wetlands” in the Muskegon aquifer as a result of Nestlé’s pumping, the plant was forced to cut its production by half. [It’s still unclear what the long range effects of years of extraction will be.]

By sharing all of this, I’m not trying to suggest that there was any vast conspiracy to drive up profits at Nestlé and move us one step closer to an America where all of our natural resources are owned and controlled by private entities. What I am suggesting, however, is that it’s complete bullshit that we’re counting on just ordinary people, and celebrities like Cher, to provide safe drinking water to the people of Flint. That, in my opinion, is fucking insane. And, furthermore, I think it’s obscene that bottled water companies are likely profiting on every one of the millions and millions of small bottles being sent to Flint. Yes, it’s nice that people want to be involved, but it’s a national disgrace that we’ve let it come to this.

Right now, at this very minute, the National Guard should have tanker trucks full of clean, drinkable water set up in every neighborhood throughout Flint. And they should be going door to door, handing out large, wheeled containers so that people can easily transport water, whenever they want, from these trucks to their homes… Wouldn’t that be exponentially more efficient than shipping millions of tiny bottles across the United States, especially since we have ready access to fresh, clean water right here in Michigan?

As for what we get this water from, here’s an idea… Why don’t we just go directly to the source? Why don’t we instruct the National Guard to drive directly to the Ice Mountain facility in Mecosta and just back their trucks up. Instead of filling tiny Ice Mountain bottles with our water, and sending them off to stores to be bought and sent back to Flint, why not just fill the trucks directly, and cut out all of the wasted steps and the plastic? I don’t know how receptive Nestle would be, but I’m sure, if our Governor just called Deb Muchmore and explained how serious the situation was, she’d be glad to help, right?

As for all of the good people around the U.S. who, understandably, want to contribute in some way, here are a few ideas that don’t involve buying and mailing small bottles of water… How about starting a fund at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center so that they can offer more in the way of outreach to families of young children suffering from the effects of lead poisoning? Or how about donating to the ACLU so that they can hire more investigative reporters, like Curt Guyette, who helped expose what’s happening in Flint, to make sure this doesn’t happen elsewhere? Or, if you want to send water, how about organizing a drive to send six-gallon carboys instead of costly individual bottles?

Posted in Civil Liberties, Environment, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 39 Comments

U-M PhD Michelle Leach, the founder of Oasis Aquaponics, on leaving academia to focus on solving basic problems afflicting the poor

Upon graduating the University of Michigan with her PhD in Biomedical Engineering, Michelle Leach decided to try something different. Instead of either pursuing a careen in academia, or accepting a job in industry, she chose to start a social venture called Oasis Aquaponics with the intention of creating an affordable food production system that could dramatically improve the quality of life for poor families in Central America. Now that her third generation prototype is about complete, thanks in part to a grant from the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation, I thought that I’d check in with her and see how things were going.

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[above: Michelle Leach and Jacquelyn Hernandez Ortiz in El Salvador, in front of Mt. Guazapa, surrounded by the ubiquitous corn that dominates the local diet.]

MARK: When discussing the Oasis Aquaponic Food Production System with someone for the first time, how do you describe? Or, to put it in entrepreneurial terms, what’s your elevator pitch?

MICHELLE: Food insecurity is the constant companion of the poor. Our solution, The Oasis, is a solar-powered inflatable aquaponics system capable of producing at minimum 300 pounds of Tilapia and 600 pounds of tomatoes, or other vegetables, annually. With a projected retail price of $100, and a business model that provides low-interest purchasing credit, our system is radically affordable and accessible.

MARK: How did the idea for the Oasis Aquaponic Food Production System come about?

MICHELLE: Two years ago, my friend Jacquelyn Hernandez Ortiz was finishing up her agricultural engineering degree and needed a senior thesis project. (Jackie was one of the Salvadoran students who received a college scholarship from my church.) Jackie asked me to help her brainstorm, and it just happened that I had recently stumbled across an article on aquaponics online, so I suggested the technique to her. Neither Jackie nor her professors had ever heard of aquaponics. I assisted them with locating some literature in Spanish on the subject, although there wasn’t much available. Jackie and her student teammates had great success with their senior thesis project, which resulted in a prototype barrel-based system. Jackie graduated, got a job with a local non-profit in El Salvador, and continued building the barrel systems with women in five remote villages in her general area. She and I then collaborated to increase the size of the system and moved to a brick tank-based design. This substantially increased the system’s production capability. However, the systems were still too expensive to sell. So we designed the Oasis with ultra-affordability in mind.

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[above: The first prototype: a barrel based system]

MARK: And you, if I’m not mistaken, are spending a good deal of your time in El Salvador now as well, working with Jackie, correct?

MICHELLE: Yes. Jackie meets with the women who have barrel systems on a semi-regular basis to resolve any problems they may encounter. A subset of the women are also working on a larger system that they operate on a cooperative basis with Jackie in town. I do weekly water testing on the 31 brick systems, as well as chat with the family operators to address issues and try to glean more insight. I also have several more experimental-type systems running, which I monitor on a day to day basis.

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[above: The second prototype: a brick tank system]

MARK: For people who might not be familiar with aquaponics systems, can you give us a brief overview on how the various components work together?

MICHELLE: Simplest explanation: The fish feed the plants and the plants clean the water. More detailed: The water pump draws water from the fish tank up to the gravel grow beds. Fish waste is suspended in this water and the gravel acts as a crude filter, as well as physical support for the plant roots. Bacteria living on the surface of the gravel breakdown this waste into a form of nitrogen which plants can uptake. The water draining out of the grow beds falls back into the fish tank, oxygenating the tank a bit in the process. Then the cycle repeats.

MARK: How has the $1,000 Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation grant helped?

MICHELLE: The money has all gone toward prototyping.

MARK: So, where are you with the next generation prototype?

MICHELLE: I hope to have prototypes ready to go in El Salvador by the end of February.

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[above: Third generation Oasis prototype]

MARK: It’s probably worth noting that you, by training, are a biomedical engineer. Is that correct?

MICHELLE: Yep, undergrad, masters, and phd, all at U of M. My thesis focused on biomaterials for repair of trauma to the peripheral nervous system. I’m working on totally different stuff now – and yet sustainable agriculture has a similar base of knowledge – biology, engineering, the health of the product, producer and the environment, etc.

MARK: I’m curious as to why you chose to go this route instead of seeking out a post doc. Had you, earlier in your career, been planning to go into academia? If so, why the change in course?

MICHELLE: Yes, my plan had been to continue in academia, but I became rather disenchanted with it all. Particularly in my postdoc work it became apparent that I was spending all my time building million dollar devices that might one day benefit a couple of millionaires. It struck me that there were far more basic problems afflicting far more people that still needed to be addressed. I initially chose biomedical engineering because I wanted to use science and engineering to improve quality of life. I have not deviated from that course.

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MARK: Would it be fair to say that, while a lot of work has been done in the area of aquaponics, up until now, there hasn’t been a lot of scientific research in the field? I mean, a lot of people are building systems, but, to my knowledge, not a lot of trained research scientists, like yourself, have taken on the problem in a systematic way that might yield reproducible results, right?

MICHELLE: Yes, this is one my peeves. There are a ton of backyard hobbyists, who are producing systems that seem to work, but they lack controls. It also seems like a few commercial operations are doing well, but they guard their systems like trade secrets. The few scientists who have done work in the area are using systems which are incredibly complicated/expensive and unsuited for the developing world. No one is doing well-controlled research on SIMPLE systems. This is the hole I’m trying to fill.

MARK: You said this was one of your peeves. Are there others as relates to this new industry you’ve entered?

MICHELLE: Sure, I suppose. The idea that the solution to poverty is a ‘thing’ or device is also somewhat misguided. People aren’t poor because they don’t have an Oasis, or a water filter, or a solar panel. People are poor for a host of other systemic reasons, which include poor infrastructure, corrupt governance, non-functioning legal frameworks, etc, etc, etc. But an Oasis, or a water filter, or a solar panel can make poverty less severe while big systemic changes happen slowly. We can use ‘things’ to chip away at the effects of poverty, and in the process empower the poor to demand systemic change.

MARK: There are other aquaponic systems on the market. How is the Oasis system different?

MICHELLE: The Oasis is designed to be radically affordable and large enough to produce a substantial quantity of food. Other systems are either extremely over-priced or too small to make a dent in a family’s nutritional requirements.

MARK: How is the system being received by those currently using the prototypes in El Salvador? Is it, as you had intended, changing people’s lives for the better? Are they providing useful feedback?

MICHELLE: The systems are being very well received. While everyone to date has received their system free of charge, we only provided alevin (baby fish) and concentrado (fish food) for the first crop cycle. It is up to the families to purchase these items for subsequent crop cycles. So far no systems have been abandoned. We see this as evidence that the families find the systems valuable. We have had some trouble getting ‘straight’ feedback, though… Everyone is super polite to me, and I was getting suspicious that perhaps I wasn’t hearing the whole story. So I recruited a local person to do anonymous interviews. We got some good data, which we are still working to translate and compile, but our preliminary read through suggests everyone is happy with the systems. We did, however, identify some small issues to address that hadn’t been on our radar.

MARK: What kinds of small issues? I’m curious.

MICHELLE: The operators compare the size of their fish to those of their neighbors. They attribute this to a difference in quality of alevin. The truth is that most of this inter-system variability is from different degrees of operator error. I wasn’t aware how little the operators understood about overfeeding resulting in excess nitrogen, resulting in stunting. Looking at it now, it’s rather counter-intuitive. For most animals, more food = more growth. In this case, though, too much food is very detrimental. And we need to do more education to drive this point across. I’m also going to create a kind of ruler scale that can be transferred onto a Coke bottle so that users of the system can make their own ‘measuring cups’.

It also came across how different operators are picking up small ‘tips and tricks’ that need to be shared with the group. We are going to try to convene them more often to share lessons. Stuff like: Make sure kids aren’t throwing rocks in to startle the fish, they will get sucked into the pump. If your dog is inexplicably soaked on hot days, it’s because he’s going swimming in your system. Just because you don’t see birds or garobos (local iguana-ish things) in your yard doesn’t mean they aren’t robbing you blind when you’re out of sight.

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[above: Tilapia – about mid crop cycle]

MARK: You mentioned above that you were considering a unique financing system that would allow people to purchase these systems more easily. What do you have in mind?

MICHELLE: It would be a microloan with the system itself as the collateral.

MARK: I’m curious about your price point of $100 per unit. Do you think that’s sustainable? First, do you think you can produce and deliver the Oasis system for that amount? And, second, can you make enough to sustain a company, investing in sales, R&D, customer support, etc.?

MICHELLE: We see ourselves as really having two markets. Farmers in the developing world and aquaponics enthusiasts in the developed world. The price point in the developed world will be higher. Also, the amount of infrastructure we will be building in the developing world will be minimal.

MARK: Have you thought about your distribution channels yet? Is there an existing infrastructure of some kind that you can perhaps piggyback on?

MICHELLE: Distribution in the developing world is tricky and absolutely must piggyback on the informal systems already in place. For example, Coca Cola stopped driving trucks around El Salvador years ago. However, you can still get a $0.40 Coke on the side of any mountain in any tiny remote village. Why? Because an informal distribution network of village shopkeepers and mid-size wholesalers exists. The only distribution method that works is local people selling locally. It is very much the Wild Wild West with the village General Store. The shopkeeper becomes like a car dealer – a subject matter expert, a repair shop, etc all in one. We won’t develop a large sales and customer support network, rather we will fit into the one that already exists.

MARK: The last time we spoke, we discussed your long range plans to start collecting data from users, having them weigh the fish harvested, the produce grown, etc. Have you made any headway toward putting together a research plan that will yield hard data?

MICHELLE: For now, I think our initial pilot with The Oasis will be run by Jackie herself. It is very important that we get accurate data. We will have a small number of systems (2-3) at first, so it won’t be too much for her to manage.

MARK: So the idea is to have two or three units, side by side, so they’ll have the same sunlight, rainfall, etc… and then collect detailed data on the output of each system in terms of fish and vegetables produced… Will all of the units be exactly the same, or might one, for instance, have a different species of fish, or peppers instead of tomatoes, or a different kind of pump circulating the water, so that you can begin making comparisons that might help you to optimize the system?

MICHELLE: Yes, that’s the idea. For now, I am envisioning the systems identical with the exception of the power units. At least one will be on grid, and the others will have the option to be switched to the grid if the solar systems aren’t cutting it. (The grid is very stable where we are, and I have some doubts about the cheap components of the solar system). We will load the three with different amounts of fish (all tilapia) and try to keep the number and type of plants more or less constant.

MARK: Can you quantify how impactful a system like this might be in the life of a family in El Salvador? Do you have anecdotal data from those you’ve been working with thus far?

MICHELLE: Very impactful. Whole tilapia sells in the market at $2/lb. Tomatoes are $0.60/lb. A family that produces 300 lbs of fish and 600 pounds of tomatoes, that sold every bit of produce, could cover their costs and still net around $900 a year. In a country where a family is lucky to bring in $500 per person, per year, this can have an enormous impact. (Hard physical labor nets $1 per hour, when you can find it.) And all this from a system which only requires 15 minutes of attention daily.

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