In 2011, Jack Waite realized his dream of producing and sharing high-quality food when he founded Agua Dulce Farm—a different breed of farm in southeast Austin. Waite admits he never planned on becoming a farmer, even though his childhood was rooted in homegrown food. “Growing up, we always had a huge garden,” he says. “I’d go out with a salt shaker in hand and eat tomatoes right off the vine. Those were happy moments.”
Over years and various careers, growing food was never too far from Waite’s heart—even when he lived in a cramped apartment and gardened out of containers. It was while living and working in Italy, though, that something clicked. He noticed how the culture there treated food very differently from the culture back home. “People in Italy really care about where their food is coming from…and that it’s healthy and prepared well,” he says. “It’s more of a community experience, more than just putting calories in your body.”
As Waite adopted a similar attitude, his connection toward food grew beyond gardening and sprouted into a passion. He was ready to transition to a career in food—he just wasn’t sure which way to go. Upon returning stateside, he visited friends in Milwaukee who had just established an aquaponic farm where they raised fish and grew produce. Waite was completely fascinated with the contained, soilless system where fish and plants work together symbiotically and naturally to produce food via water. “I had never heard of aquaponics,” says Waite. “But I loved the idea of combining fish and farming. It hit me hard.”
Waite’s friends had been studying the concept with Growing Power, a nonprofit farm founded by former basketball player Will Allen, who has been advocating aquaponics for over two decades. Waite would eventually meet Allen in person—an event that remains a career highlight for him.
Back in Austin, Waite thought the farming concept would be a perfect fit for our temperamental climate. “I spent the next few years thinking up my farm,” he says. “I read anything I could get my hands on. I also researched other aquaponic farms, hydroponic farms and conventional farms. And I did a lot of market research.”
When Waite found investors to fund his dream, he left the cubicle world behind forever. But before any actual farming could be done, there were numerous hurdles to overcome: finding land, acquiring proper urban-farming permits and figuring out what to do when the consulting company he’d hired to help design and implement his system went belly-up and he was forced to learn the ropes himself—and there was a sizable learning curve. “Everything was done in huge iterations where it could come collapsing down to the ground,” says Waite.
One of his biggest challenges was the actual design of the farm. There were only a few small buildings on the property, and Waite was frustrated with the high cost of building a sufficient structure for the fish to live in. “Then late one night, I came up with the idea to use shipping containers, and a friend suggested that I insulate them,” he says. “These shipping containers could hold several tanks of fish, and by placing them close to the greenhouses, the water could easily travel back and forth, nourishing both the fish and the plants.”
Finally, he had a functional system in place, and he began to build and develop relationships with local food producers, growers and artisans, as well as espouse (to just about anyone who would listen) the benefits of sustainability-friendly aquaponic farming. Some of those listening were local chefs. “Jack is such a special farmer,” says Todd Duplechan of Lenoir. “He’s willing to take risks and do things a lot of other farmers won’t, like grow unusual herbs that I request. He wants to give it a try.”
Coined Agua Dulce (Sweet Water), Waite’s farm currently produces organic lettuce, leafy greens and specialty herbs, as well as native Texas Bluegill and Black Crappie. Because the farm uses water instead of soil, the pH levels are monitored closely. “It’s constant troubleshooting and adjusting,” says Waite. “We also need to feed the fish, usually twice per day. How well the fish are eating is also an excellent barometer of water quality. Happy fish equals healthy water.”
Currently, Waite is focused on building relationships and ways to make the farm even more sustainable—something he’s earnest about. “I cringe a little when people call aquaponics a sustainable way of farming,” he says. “Because, in a lot of ways, it’s not. If Agua Dulce had solar panels and a well for our water source, it would be close to being fully sustainable.” But Waite believes this farming system has the potential to one day play an important role in the local food system. “I couldn’t dream of producing one percent of food for Austin, capacity-wise, with my farm,” he says. “But what if there were a bunch of aquaponic farms around the city, even on rooftops?” And looking at the bigger picture, Waite anticipates the concept could one day have a role in harnessing untapped resources, such as utilizing the ocean to grow food or developing innovative technology to grow food in outer space. All of these possibilities keep Waite inspired. “What the next big thing will be…that’s what gets me excited!”
For more information, visit aguadulceaustin.com or call 512-658-5223.
by Monica Johnson • Photography by Pauline Stevens