Photo by Kris Kathmann
Seth Yokum takes care of business, by taking care of the environment.
Seth Yocum remembers when his affection for water and the environment began.
“One of my earliest memories is being four years old and the neighbors were washing the car and there was just this stream going down our gravel back alley. I was in there making little dams and digging little ponds and just making these water environments. It just basically grew from there and when I was 12, I got my first aquarium. By the time I was 15 I had, I think, 16 or 17 aquariums in my room,” explains Yocum.
A childhood interest that has turned into an impassioned mission.
“We’re getting into trouble here,” he says. “I’m 41 years old now. When I was 12, when I was 15, we were swimming and snorkeling in Lake Washington, Madison Lake and they were clear, I could see 20 feet in front of me in August. Now in June and July, I can see a half inch below the surface and my hand disappears. The cause is algae from excessive nutrients. Plants clean water, so if we have some form of plants growing that were just hooked into an open loop, bringing the dirty water up through the plants and then coming out as clean water while helping the plants to grow. That would be a game changer.”
That’s a large-scale, long-term game plan, but over the years Yocum has started to see how he can tackle the problem in smaller steps. He is also aware that he can’t do it alone. He founded Aqualogical Resources as a way to educate people and empower businesses to take matters into their own hands using the simple superpowers of water and plant ecosystems in tandem.
“When you look at the information coming out about our planet collectively, it’s kind of horrifying. I have four kids and I want better for them. But then I think, ‘I’m just one of the seven billion people on this planet. What in the heck can I do?’ That’s where I came up with Aqualogical Resources. I’m going to throw everything I have into just getting us to turn just a little bit. If we can cover every inch of Mankato in greenery and maybe possibly put cleaner water back into our reservoirs and lakes and streams than we take out, that’s an accomplishment.”
And that’s really at the heart of what Aqualogical Resources does, gives businesses sustainable ways to enhance not only their office environment, but the environment they enjoy when they are not at work.
“We, as in the collective world, have modernized life to the point where we look out the window and go, ‘That’s nature out there’ rather than integrating ourselves into the nature,” he says. “I’m just taking these tiny steps into educating and creating awareness for people to take ownership over the natural environment because we’ve so long treated it as kind of a commodity that we just buy and sell. The truth is we – all of us – are an integral part of nature. We profit when it’s healthy. When nature thrives, we thrive.”
Really, he says, it just comes down to using water wisely. It’s been Yocum’s life purpose since his infatuation with it began as a child. He’s been custom designing ponds, aquariums, aquaponic and other aquatic systems for friends and referrals since the late 1990s. He didn’t officially make it a business until 2014. It’s a business with a focus on sustainable products, techniques, and designs that utilize natural processes and the latest technologies. It keeps him busy, as each system has to be tailored to each unique location and situation. His offerings include aquarium set up and maintenance, pond set up and maintenance and aquaponics systems.
“There’s a million options with it. What does this look like? This looks like anything, like I said, an aquarium in your home or business. This looks like a waterfall in your yard. This looks rustic and natural or organized and orderly, maybe you’re more of a contemporary person and you want it trimmed out with teal aluminum. This can be completely customized to whatever you want it to be.”
Businesses in the region are taking note. For example, the Hubbard Building in Old Town that houses the Center for Entrepreneurship, the Small Business Development Center and others, has put in a green wall (or live wall) that uses the power of plants to keep the air clean.
“This is right in front of the air handling system for the entire building here. What happens, since carbon dioxide is heavier than oxygen, the collective breaths of every inhabitant and every visitor of the building is actually being passed through the screen wall. Down here there’s about 35 linear feet of green wall. There’s a lot of cleaning power for the air and just the environment in general. The lighting system is fully controllable LED, there are four large lights specifically suited for growing plants and we can change the spectrum and the intensity. This creates a sunrise in the morning, sunset at night and kind of a peak sunlight during the noontime period. We’re recreating nature down here, the whole spectrum.”
There are numerous studies that show this type of office ecosystem is beneficial on many fronts.
“There are thousands of benefits to putting green space or an aquatic/aquaponic system in your office,” explains Yocum. “To start with: healthier air. The green wall has plants that filter pollutants out of the air. They’re also cleaning out carbon dioxide and contributing oxygen, which in turn inspires creativity, reduces depression and the winter doldrums.
“So today, many of these businesses are finding out, hey, I want to bring this into my business because my workers are more productive, they’re less stressed and they’re more creative. They just feel better about being in the office.”
Yocum says the investment in this type of thing varies greatly, depending on a business’ goals, space, and budget.
“Give or take, you’re looking at $90 to $120 a square foot for a live wall. But for aquariums the price point is honestly all over the place based on inhabitants and design.”
It’s an investment more and more companies are making, as they strive not only to invest in the environment but their employees, too.
“Imagine if you worked in an office every day with just four walls, or maybe a window, and it might not be a terrible office. But those walls are a blank canvas. If we were just simply to add a little ficus or other plants here and there or perhaps a small aquarium along the wall, the place would be exponentially more inviting. It would have life. Investing in their employees’ well-being, which in turn makes the employees invest much more in the business.”
But getting into businesses is just the beginning, Yocum says the science behind this has agricultural applications as well.
“I worked with Blue Earth County Soil and Water a few years ago. They gave me their information on specifically Crystal Lake. They monitor the ditches that come in and out of Crystal Lake. Aquaponics is simply growing plants in water. You need about 20 parts per million of Nitrate to start growing leafy greens and such. You need about 80 to 90 parts per million for peppers and tomatoes, really heavy feeders. The ditches that come in to feed Lake Crystal are running at 80 to 90 to near 100 parts per million at two different times of the year, Spring and Fall, when there’s no foliage around to uptake the nutrients or help that from running off the land.
“Secondarily, farmers with tiled fields use approximately 20% more nitrate on their fields, according to the University of Wisconsin, and that extra just goes flowing right off into the water. That’s a water-soluble fertilizer that ends up in these ditches. If we could find a way to set up a system next to the ditch, we’re off and running. We could grow tomatoes and peppers and all of that just from ditch water and put clean water back in.”
As Mankato and other regional hubs continue to grow, Yocum says Urban Agriculture is becoming more and more important. In fact, Urban Agriculture is at the center of most products available through Aqualogical Resources. It’s often hard to find space to grow a significant amount of produce. Wall gardens, roof gardens, aquaponics and small optimized plots bring productivity to limited spaces.
“Egyptians used it 2,000 years ago,” says Yocum. “It’s the same simple technology. Look at Mexico City, they had concentric rings of like an aquaponic water treatment facility around it. They grew all of their gardens in these rings around the city and cleaned the water from the city. It’s old technology and it’s so simple. That’s why we need to embrace it again. It’s practical and inexpensive.”
For Yocum though, it’s really not about the bottom line.
“I’m trying, that’s all we can do. It’s like the old saying, ripples on a pond. You throw a stone out there and that stone might just make one tiny splash but those ripples continue to move out. If I can teach people and educate people on how to take care of nature. That’s going to go a long way. They’re going to teach their children, we’re going to embrace our natural resources a little more.”
“I really want to see the dream of cleaning our lakes and our natural environment come to fruition. I’m envisioning something along the lines of an old pontoon,” he explains. “We can just convert an old pontoon or anything as long as it floats. I’ll put some solar panels on it and a pump. Find me even the dirtiest lake, I’ll bring water out of the lake, I’ll run it through my rafts. I’ll grow whatever – we’ll make it a community funded or a crowdsourced project. Whatever those people where we park that raft want to grow, let’s try it. Let’s see what we can do. I guarantee we can grow something. I guarantee we can put cleaner water back into wherever we’re at.”
Use Water Wisely
Here are some facts about water usage in the United States, according to chelseagreen.com:
- Americans now use 127 percent more water than we did in 1950.
- About 95 percent of the water entering our homes goes down the drain.
- Running the tap while brushing your teeth can waste 4 gallons of water.
- Leaky faucets that drip at the rate of one drop per second can waste up to 2,700 gallons of water each year.
- A garden hose or sprinkler can use almost as much water in an hour as an average family of four uses in one day.
- Some experts estimate that more than 50 percent of landscape water use goes to waste due to evaporation or runoff caused by over-watering.
- Many people in the world exist on 3 gallons of water per day or less. We can use that amount in one flush of the toilet.
- China, India, the United States and Brazil used the most, and they’re the first, second, third and fifth most populous countries.
- Yocum’s Big Idea
“Recently, they legalized hemp in the farm bill. Industrial hemp, not to be confused with the psychoactive marijuana, is like tomatoes and peppers. Hemp is a heavy feeder on nitrogen or nitrate, and it also flowers, so it’s going to also uptake phosphorus and potassium too. We build one of these systems relatively inexpensive right next to a good source of nutrients, like a ditch, and now I’m growing hemp in there. I’m cleaning the water with my hemp and I’m growing the hemp for production purposes.
“Let’s take that further…we can now get CBD oil out of hemp. I believe that’s going for $30 an ounce. We can get CBD oil out of our hemp. Now, hemp is also great for textiles or paper or other products like that, so we’ve got at least two different products out of our hemp, AND we have clean water coming out of the other end. Someone’s got to bite on that idea because you’re taking free nutrients from the environment, you’re turning it into a salable product in the form of a medicine like CBD oil and pulp for textiles, paper or whatever other products, and then a by-product from that is clean water, awesome! ”
What is Aquaponics?
In very simple terms, Aquaponics combines aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (the soil-less growing of plants). It grows plants and fish together in one integrated system. The fish waste provides an organic food source for the plants, and the plants naturally filter the water for the fish.
There are numerous benefits to aquaponics system:
- Because it is all natural, there is no toxic run-off
- Aquaponics uses only 1/10th of the water of soil-based gardening
- It’s a natural eco system, so no harmful petro chemicals, pesticides or herbicides are used
- Once set up, Aquaponics systems require minimal maintenance so it cuts down on gardening chores
- Aquaponic systems can be put anywhere and they are scaleable!