Interview with Agua Dulce

Jack Waite has some oceanfront property in East Austin. Well, maybe not, but he’s got the next-best thing: Agua Dulce, an aquaponic farm where he raises fish, organic vegetables, and culinary seaweed that tastes bright and briny, just like the sea. Agua Dulce is a model of sustainability; Jack also addresses issues of food access by offering part of his land to his neighbors for community garden plots. We’re so proud he’s part of our community in Austin and even more thrilled that he’s joined us as a vendor at SFC Farmers’ Market Downtown on Saturdays. Read on for a little bit of his story and come out to the market to offer a big SFC welcome!

Tell us a little about the journey that led you to where you are now—growing food at Agua Dulce?

When my grandmother turned 90, my family went to see her in Wisconsin. We stayed with some friends in Milwaukee and they had just started a commercial aquaponic farm. I was intrigued and blown away. I asked my friends a million questions and they graciously answered. I was hooked, horrible pun intended.

Aquaponics is a very old concept--the Ancient Egyptians were doing it, the Aztecs were doing it. But the past 30 years have seen technological leaps that make it a highly efficient, climate adaptive, and natural way to grow veggies and fish. I had always loved fishing and gardening, as well as sourcing high quality food and cooking for my family. The journey has been long: everything I have done or studied in my life factored into making this farm work.

Why raise food?

I've long been a person who would spend a crazy amount of time on the weekend visiting several different farms, markets, and grocery stores to find the right food for my family. We eat on a budget, but I prefer quality over quantity, healthy over convenient. We eat meals made from scratch most nights and eat together at a big table. Food is at the center of my family life. Now I have the chance to provide others with high quality, delicious, and healthy food. I want Agua Dulce Farm's fresh veggies to be on the plates of other families too. You are what you eat, so don't eat crap! Be selective and deliberate.

How did your previous life experience or influences prepare you to raise food for a living?

At UT I studied biology & botany. I have worked as a bartender, a gardener, and a cook. I was a founding officer of a nonprofit and served as treasurer, then its Public Affairs Director, and later became a fundraising professional. I studied nonprofit management at the LBJ School at UT and I learned about how little ideas can grow and change the world. But the bartending really helped most—it taught me to become a great listener and how to deal with all kinds of people.

What does “sustainable” mean to you?

Sustainability to me means minimizing the inputs required to get a desired output. It really means trying to think 100 years down the road. Will we still be ranching cattle? Will we continue to grow fruits and vegetables in the ground when water becomes more and more scarce? How will we feed 10 or 20 billion people without further damage to our environment? Sustainable practices are an ideal to strive towards. We don't have all the answers, but maybe we just haven't asked the right questions yet.

What does a “day in the life” look like at Agua Dulce?

There is no normal day, but in general the fish, chickens, and goats need to be fed first. Then we begin harvesting as early as possible. We plant seeds, transplant seedlings, perform pest management, take several water tests, give tours of the farm. We try to keep up with social media, research crop selection, volunteer coordination, and then there's always the sexy accounting and bookkeeping to be done. A good day is when everything functions as it should, but I've come to expect the worst each day, that way I'll never be disappointed.

What would we be surprised to learn is part of your “job description”?

I always deliver the food to our restaurant clients to find out what they are looking for and to get feedback on quality. I also drive an hour each way every few weeks to buy live fish.

What do you find most rewarding about farming?

Watching people eat food produced at Agua Dulce Farm makes me smile. Seeing them thoroughly enjoy and appreciate that food makes me beam.

What do you find most challenging?

Farming within the city limits of Austin means access to a nearby hungry market, but burdensome City of Austin permits and regulations very nearly put us out of business.

What do you feel is the biggest obstacle faced today by folks who want to raise food sustainably for a living?

Access to water and energy costs are the biggest obstacles I see with raising food sustainably. Managing energy costs are also a crucial piece to a complicated puzzle.

What is a farmer’s role in our society?

Farmers are the suppliers. Farmers are like plankton in the ocean--everyone depends on them to survive, though they usually go unseen and unnoticed.

Why should we shop at the farmers’ market?

Shop at the Farmers Market to know where your food comes from and what makes it special. Support your local economy. Support small farmers!

What is the best news in food you’ve heard recently?

The possibility of aquaponic farming in space is pretty cool news story I recently saw. Check it out here.

I really want to explore the idea of setting up floating gardens on Lady Bird Lake. Here’s how they do it in Paris.

What do you wish more people knew about growing food?

I think if people realized the amount of time, attention, and care we put into each and every plant we produce, they'd probably think that we're crazy. Maybe we are. But to do so in any other way would compromise the reason we are doing what we do: growing healthy, fresh, sustainable, and delicious food for a healthier Austin.

Who inspires you?

Will Allen. Michael Pollan. Local chefs who take chances.

What are a few simple things everyone can do to create a better, stronger food system?

Buy locally. Get to know your farmers. Choose quality over quantity. Make food from scratch. Don't buy processed food. Skip the fast food.

What are you cooking this week?

Gazpacho Andaluz

What’s your favorite recipe or dish from the farm?

Tuscan Kale Caesar Slaw
from Bon Appétit. Here’s the recipe if you want to try it!

Quick Picks

Favorite breakfast: Farm eggs with chopped fresh herbs, buttered toast, and a cappuccino

Favorite comfort food: Homemade Shepherd's Pie or Migas from Tamale House (R.I.P.)

Favorite book about food: Tie: Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential and Carla Capalbo's The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania.

Favorite cookbook: Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking

Favorite fruit/veggie in season now: tie: Figs and tomatoes

Favorite food indulgence: Super fresh uni; Central Texas BBQ brisket and pork ribs