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A guy called Alligator Joe demonstrates how tilapia and basil could heal the planet 

I first heard of "Alligator Joe" Cannon when his wife stopped by the office months back.

She had come, like so many others in the wake of city cutbacks, to complain that her sidewalk wasn't being kept up. As she was heading out the door, she stopped.

"You know," she said, "you should really talk to my husband sometime."

Shirley Cannon, who was covered in paint, went on to describe an alligator wrestler and ex-Colorado Springs Utilities worker who believed he could save the world from global warming using tilapia, herbs and possibly ... a water park.

I just didn't know what to say.

I took the card she offered me, threw it in a stack, and returned to the drudgery of covering city budget cuts, homeless issues and medical marijuana growth. A few months later, I was in my car with news radio blabbing in the background when a story came on about "aquaponic" systems. Aquaponics, apparently, made use of tilapia and plants as a natural filtration system and fertilizer. It could, the story proclaimed, be part of the future of sustainable agriculture.

I about choked on my coffee.

Back at the office, I spent an embarrassing amount of time digging through files and stacks until finally, triumphantly, I grasped an ivory-colored business card with a drawing of a wide-mouthed gator on it. The words "ALLIGATOR JOE" appeared in large black letters along the top.

Mr. Personality

A few days later, I'm sitting in front of his house.

Joe told me it would be easy to find, just east of downtown. Sure enough, the huge, wooden building, painted white with black trim, resembles the Addams Family mansion.

In the front yard, a waterfall is partially constructed. Random objects, whimsically painted with vines, surround it. Yard ornaments seem to be reproducing like rabbits in heat. I sit in the car and stare for a moment.

Jesus.

Joe bounds out to greet me, looking markedly less "Crocodile Dundee" than I had expected. A sturdy 52-year-old with short gray hair, he's no more sensational-looking than a suburban, minivan-driving dad. He is, however, quite a talker.

"Why are you called Alligator Joe?" I ask, when I finally get a word in.

He feeds me the obvious answer: Well, duh, he wrestles alligators. But then he stops, smiles slyly, and gives me the frank version: "You've got to have an animal," he says. "If you don't capture someone's imagination right off the bat, you lose them."

Speaking of which, in the first five minutes of meeting Joe, I learn that his home is one of the oldest in Colorado Springs, built in 1870 by a wealthy miner for a madame, who apparently still haunts the place. There are hitching posts on his porch, and Joe claims that Nikola Tesla once slept here. (Perhaps Tesla may have fancied more than just alternating currents.)

Inside, Shirley, a painter and English teacher at Colorado Springs Early Colleges, whom Joe describes as "kind of a character, too" (no argument from this corner) has turned the home into her canvas. She's painted everything from a bison skull that stands watch by one of the home's many fireplaces, to whole walls and floors. Bits of poetic inspiration are painted along the dining room walls. An intricate, mural-like piece featuring various acquaintances accents the kitchen. And the room the madame apparently likes haunting best is soaked from the ceiling to the floor in Shirley's creativity.

The house comes with plenty of its own flourishes as well. Joe points to the gilded carvings in the staircase, the large lead glass panels in the red-velvet-curtained front door, the cherry wood beams crisscrossing the living room ceilings.

And then, of course, there is all the stuff. The Cannons love stuff. Sculptures from South America, African violets, gator statues, fake flowers, old photographs, a life-sized cardboard cutout of Tom Selleck dressed as an aviator. The stuff is everywhere: covering the walls, crowding the furniture, blocking the fireplaces, creating inlets along the old hardwood floors. It seems almost alive, like a jungle reclaiming a lost civilization.

Joe talks up the house hungrily, clearly as excited by these design elements as by the prospect of global energy salvation — the subject I have actually come here to discuss.

But that's just Joe: Former power plant control room operator, salesman, gardener, handyman, collector, inventor and diplomat.

"I don't look at things as a problem; I look at things as, I haven't figured them out yet," he says. "I'm not a concrete thinker; I'm an out-there thinker."

Secret garden

Eventually, Joe leads me to the backyard, where another pond and waterfall, statues of ducks and gnomes, and hundreds of iris bulbs are awaiting spring. The small backyard is home to a clear plastic greenhouse, about the size of a cozy bathroom.

This is where the magic happens.

But not at that moment. Joe explains that his aquaponics system will be up and running in the next few weeks — he only turns it on in the summer.

Still, the setup is in place. There's a black plastic tub, roughly the volume of a bath, plastic piping, beds of gravel, and pots lining the walls.

In the summer, Joe explains, he fills the tub with water and tilapia, warming the water with a small titanium heater. Water is then pumped out of the tank and fed into gravel beds using a drip system. Seedlings are nestled in the gravel beds. The growing plants suck up the water, and the fish waste within it.

Fish waste contains high levels of nitrogen, which plants love and need to grow. Now, a nitrogen-rich fish tank will kill fish; luckily for Joe's tilapia, the plants strip the water of its nitrogen. The remaining clean water is then returned to the fish tank via a plastic pipe.

When the plants are big enough, Joe usually transfers them to pots or to his garden, opening up his gravel beds for new seedlings. (In a more strict aquaponics system, the plants stay in the water until they mature.)

Joe's plants grow at astounding rates. By way of proof, he shows me the brown remainders of two tomato plants that took over an entire fence in his backyard last summer, as well as pictures of huge bunches of basil and 4-foot-tall zinnias. (Other aquaponic farmers have reported similarly impressive results.) The fish also reproduce, creating many a healthy meal for Joe and Shirley, all straight out of their own backyard.

Locavores, eat your heart out.

Dreamin' big

It was back around 1995 that ideas began colliding in Joe's mind.

Having worked at Colorado Springs Utilities since he was 22 — he retired as a control room operator in 2007 — Joe had spent the better part of his life watching power plants belch waste heat into the atmosphere. He always wondered whether there might be a better solution.

Joe had also taken up selling floor coverings as a side job. That put him in touch with a lot of restaurants, and a lot of chefs. The chefs were always complaining about the dearth of local greens.

Meanwhile, Joe was growing concerned about the rise in some diseases and autoimmune disorders. And wondering whether there might be some link to all the preservatives and chemicals in food.

Then one day, Joe read an article about the struggles of fish farmers who must find ways to filter their water, and the pieces started to come together.

Joe began investigating aquaponics — talking to scientists who knew about the closely related science of hydroponics, and also the owners of the Colorado Gators Reptile Park in Mosca, which raises gators, tilapia, reptiles and birds. (This is where Joe learned to wrestle alligators: "Always sneak up from behind," he says, adding, "The front side is the sensors, so you just have to reach around and grab 'em. Arrrgh.")

Joe's first aquaponics system was a 10-gallon tank in his living room. But his dreams were a lot bigger.

See, power plants, homes and businesses all produce waste heat. The Martin Drake Power Plant downtown belches it in big white puffs into the atmosphere. Your water heater and furnace let it off, too. So, Joe thought, why not capture that waste heat and use it to warm the water in an aquaponics system, thereby making it energy-neutral?

When people think about saving energy, he says, they always think about being more efficient — using less energy to begin with. But there's another way to be Earth-friendly, he explains, and that is to use wasted energy.

"Everyone always looks at the front side," he says, "but nobody looks at the back side."

In fact, Joe guesses, Colorado Springs Utilities produces enough waste heat to provide the city with a lot of fish and veggies — or even warm a small water park. (Utilities, by the way, says the trick is to find a way to effectively capture all that energy on a large scale.)

There are other benefits. Aquaponics recycles water, making it ideal for dry climates like in Colorado, where it's not unusual for drought conditions to lead to water shortages. It's completely organic. And if major aquaponics systems were set up in communities, they could provide better food to locals that's also healthier for the planet, because it wouldn't have to be shipped in from other states or countries.

So, once he'd perfected his home system, Joe tried marketing it. He wanted Utilities to try it out, but no one over there was interested.

By the way, Utilities spokesman Steve Berry says it's hard to confirm whether Utilities ever considered aquaponics, but says Utilities is approached with many renewable ideas all the time.

"We've had a bunch of different suggestions," he says. "Some of these newer technologies we tend to move slower, because we are owned by our community, and there are some ratepayers that would want us to push forward on that and others may not, because of the rate implications."

Joe says he set up a few small systems around the West for individuals, but now he thinks the real market is overseas. He's started the Hau Giang Power Plant Joint Venture Company and is currently trying to build renewable energy power plants in Vietnam and Cambodia that would also use aquaponics. Southeast Asia is a good candidate for these systems, Joe says, because power systems there are unreliable, if they exist at all. And people need electricity to build toward being competitive in the global market.

Joe says he hopes the plants can help the world's poor build a better life for themselves — without wrecking their environments.

Not so far out

Joe isn't the only one who sees big answers in aquaponics. Nor is he the only one to experiment with it in his backyard.

In addition to do-it-yourselfers like Joe, who create their own systems out of plumbing pipes and barrels, many experimental gardeners are buying backyard systems from one of several companies that now sell them.

For example, Georgia-based Earth Solutions is online, selling systems called "Farm in a Box" that range in price from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Friendly Aquaponics, based in Hawaii, will sell you plans and instructions for building your own aquaponics system for $49.95 to $995, depending on the size system. Wisconsin-based Nelson and Pade sells systems for hobbyists, as well as for commercial farmers, that range in price from $3,619 to more than $58,000. It also offers curriculum, workshops and a quarterly publication dedicated to the industry, the Aquaponics Journal, which has about 2,500 subscribers.

Journal editor and co-publisher Rebecca Nelson estimates that America now has about 1,200 small aquaponics systems in backyards, fewer than 50 small farms, and perhaps eight to 10 large commercial operations. But the numbers are growing.

"We've been involved in controlled-environment agriculture since the 1980s," Nelson says, "... but it's really in the recent years that we've seen a big increase in awareness of aquaponics."

Aquaponics' cousin, hydroponics, in which plants are cultivated indoors in artificially nutrient-enriched water, has been growing in popularity since the 1950s. But aquaponics, at least in its modern incarnation, really only started being used in the 1980s, she says.

Which is not to say it's a radical idea. In fact, the technology of aquaponics is based on Mother Nature. Plants, after all, grow next to waterways inhabited by fish. There's evidence that some ancient cultures caught on to aquaponics: The Aztecs who lived around modern-day Mexico City, for instance, understood the concept. Surrounded by lakes, with little farming land to support their populations, the people built rafts with natural reeds (called chinampas), planted food crops on them, and left them to float in the lakes.

All that said: Before you buy a 55-gallon tub yourself, there are some things to consider.

Shane Heschel, Colorado College assistant professor of biology and a plant ecophysiologist (studying how plants interact with their environment), says many factors can go wrong in a hydroponic or aquaponic system. First, nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium must be maintained at the right levels. Second, the gardener must control pests like insects and algae that can attack plants or clog systems. Third, he or she must monitor temperature, humidity and equipment.

All this means you need a knowledge base and a work ethic.

"It takes someone wanting to have a little hobby," Heschel says, laughing.

Nelson says that's one of the reasons why many people choose to buy a pre-made system that comes with instructions.

"There is a lot of science behind it," she says. "It's not always easy as a hobbyist to figure out those formulas."

That said, aquaponics can be a fun and creative endeavor. Hobbyists usually start with tilapia, which is hardy, and some basic plants. But many graduate to more exotic pursuits like raising trout, koi (colorful pond fish also called Japanese carp) or orchids.

On the horizon

In some areas, "aquaponics" has already become a catchphrase.

As a February New York Times story reported: "In Australia, where gardeners have grappled with droughts for a decade, aquaponics is particularly appealing because it requires 80 to 90 percent less water than traditional growing methods. (The movement's antipodean think tank is a Web site called Backyard Aquaponics, where readers can learn how, say, to turn a swimming pool into a fish pond.)"

Closer to home, Denver's Sylvia Bernstein is trying to start a revolution. A founding member of AeroGrow International, which makes a very popular home hydroponics system, she's an aquaponics convert creating a company with her husband to sell aquaponics products to hobbyists. She's also teaching sold-out classes on the subject, and posting information all over the Web on her methods. (Try aquaponicgardeningblog.com, aquaponicscommunity.com and aquaponicgardeningtv.com.)

"I'm evangelizing aquaponics," she says with a laugh.

Aquaponics, however, doesn't appear to be quite as trendy in the Springs as of yet. While it's hard to say how many "out-there thinkers" like Alligator Joe are trying aquaponics in their backyards in the Pikes Peak region, there certainly aren't a lot of large-scale growers.

John Nicholas, greenhouse manager with Mauro Farms Bakery outside of Pueblo, runs four hydroponic greenhouses that grow tomatoes and lettuce. He says he doesn't know of anyone else in the area with a large hydroponics system, let alone an aquaponics setup.

And he's not sure why.

With about a quarter-acre of space, he's able to produce 38 tons of organic tomatoes in 10 months, and about 700 to 800 heads of lettuce a week. The lettuce is sold, roots intact, in special packaging that contains water. Since the lettuce is alive, it will last up to four weeks in your refrigerator.

All of Nicholas' produce is eagerly gobbled up by the Springs' two Whole Foods stores and the LaGree's store in Pueblo. ("The tomatoes are always very good," says LaGree's assistant manager Fred Garner says. "It's very fresh.")

Nicholas says there are lots of advantages to growing hydroponically. The product is perfect. The growth output is amazing. The water use is extremely low — 25 gallons a day for a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse packed with tomatoes. He can grow year-round, and doesn't have to worry about the weather.

"You're not at the mercy of the afternoon hailstorm," he says. "You see the cars with the dings in them — imagine what that tomato in the field looked like?"

Considering the benefits, Nicholas thinks hydro and aquaponic farming will catch on eventually. And that could mean greenhouses in every town, growing healthy produce — and fish — for local customers.

"I just picture Colorado as having these greenhouses sprinkled up and down the Front Range," Nicholas says, adding that he thinks consumers are tired of buying produce from exotic (mysterious) locales. "I don't fully understand why we can't grow for our communities."

stanley@csindy.com

  • A look at one local aquaponics operation by a man who wrestles alligators.

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