Tag Archives: Greg Fripp

Whispering Roots Takes Root

July 10, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Highlander Village on North 30th Street between Lake and Cuming is a dramatic new development meant to revitalize the depressed neighborhood surrounding it. The center of this community (planned by 75 North Revitalization Corp.) is the Accelerator. The 65,000 square foot, Z-shaped building serves as a Creighton University and Metropolitan Community College-led health-education hub. An event venue and a ground floor coffee shop will be joined by established eateries and entrepreneurial startups. 

But what most grabs the eye is the Accelerator’s futuristic-looking urban agriculture facility for nonprofit tenant Whispering Roots. A see-through greenhouse sits majestically atop floors dedicated to education and production—all centered on aquaculture, aquaponics, and hydroponic growing. As Whispering Roots founder and executive director Greg Fripp explains, nearly everything at the $4.2 million, 18,000-square-foot green site is designed for the next generation. Like the rest of Highlander, he says the custom design and construction, plus elevated location, are meant to raise people’s expectations in a high-poverty environment.

Slated to open by late summer, the facility is built on years of seeds sown by Fripp and company in inner-city public schools and neighborhoods. Whispering Roots teaches students how to build and maintain aquaculture systems that grow fish—tilapia or steelhead trout—for consumption. Fish waste is used to fertilize crops grown in the same system. The closed system’s water is naturally cleaned and recirculated. Floating raft crop, drip irrigation, and raised bed techniques are taught. 

The new digs will allow Whispering Roots to expand learning opportunities for youth and adults around organic agriculture, healthy cooking, and nutrition. It will refer participants in need of human and social services to on-site partners.

“We focus on growing, feeding, and educating,” Fripp says. “We’re touching different aspects of the community to address where the gaps are. By working with different folks and actually being out in the community and listening to the feedback—what’s working, what’s not working—it allowed us to design a facility that meets the needs of the community.”

Fripp says residents of the community have said they need more locally produced food, hands-on experiential learning, and STEM education, “and that’s what we do.”

To help address the community’s lack of access to fresh, local healthy food, Whispering Roots will sell the fish and vegetable crops it harvests on-site at farmers markets and select stores and to neighboring Accelerator food purveyors. 

Fripp sees this as just the start.

“The model is what matters—the techniques and how we build them and improve them in underserved communities—and then taking that model and replicating it at whatever scale makes sense for a community,” he says. “Where a lot of people make mistakes is they try to force a model and scale in a community that’s not ready to deal with it. The community’s overwhelmed.”

Fripp’s interest in urban ag and aquaculture goes back 20-plus years, to high school. After a U.S. Navy logistics career, he worked in the corporate world. He left an executive human resources position at TD Ameritrade in Omaha to follow his real passion full time.

He founded Whispering Roots in his home garage and basement lab with his own savings, and in less than a decade it’s now supported by major philanthropic players such as the Sherwood, Weitz Family, and Suzanne and Walter Scott foundations.

Funders bought into his vision, allowing it to ramp-up from micro to mega level. In learning to build and operate aquaculture systems, grow, harvest, package, market, and sell food, students will acquire portable skills.

Whispering Roots already has a presence as far away as Haiti and Madagascar and as near as Iowa and Missouri. It’s currently building a facility in Macy, Nebraska.

On the planning table is a full-scale commercial production facility that would supply food in quantity and create jobs.

“We not only want to replicate what we’re doing here but also to do economic development by developing this pipeline of kids and adults from the community who can then work in or run those facilities,” Fripp says.

Fripp and his team are much in demand as consultants.

“We’ve become subject matter experts for other communities that would like to do the same around the country. We have people calling from Kansas City, Minneapolis, wondering how we’re pulling this off in Omaha,” he says, adding that the model is what’s interesting to them. It challenges the way people view urban agriculture, hands-on experiential learning, and STEM in underserved and impoverished communities.

“We’ve been able to navigate government and policies and work on the community side, in schools, and to figure out how all these pieces work together,” he says.

From concept to completion, he says, “One of the biggest challenges is helping people understand the vision because it’s so new. When I started my organization in 2011 and said we’re going to put fish and plants in classrooms to teach kids about science, people thought that was crazy. They said, ‘It’s never going to work, kids aren’t going to be interested.’ Now our problem is we don’t have enough bandwidth to handle all the requests we get from the schools. But when I started, no one believed this was even possible.” 

Even after capturing the attention of kids—who started winning science fairs—and making converts of educators, he says, “In talking about where we were going to build our new facility, we had people questioning why we wanted to go into the inner city and offering us free land to build in rural areas. But the goal was to do it in an underserved community to prove it’s possible to go into the toughest areas, build this thing, and show it can work. That’s not easy because you run into a lot of roadblocks. There’s a lot of preconceived notions about what education looks like in an underserved community, what people will tolerate, what will work. What we’re trying to do is change that view.”

On a recent tour of the new Omaha facility, a woman who resides nearby told Fripp, “I’m glad that you are here. This is close to my heart. It needed to be here. This is such a beautiful and good thing that the community will protect you.”

“That feedback,” he says, “tells me we’re on the right path. The key is that you are a part of the community so that people feel like they have ownership—this is their resource. That’s what we want. We want that community base. If it’s just a community place and there’s no connect, people don’t care. They’re like, ‘That’s not ours anyway.’ But if it’s community-based, then, ‘It’s ours.’”

Part of that buy-in, he says, is “trying to build our own pathway and network of students who then become the experts who teach and train.” The goal is creating self-sufficiency so that communities can feed themselves. 

Having an African-American at the head of it all is a powerful symbol.

“When intersecting with the African-American community, students need to see people who look like them doing this work,” Fripp says. “Then they can internalize it by saying, ‘Me, too.’ They need to know this is a goal that is achievable.”


Visit whisperingroots.org for more information

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Greg Fripp teaches aquaculture, aquaponics, and hydroponic skills to the next generation.

Aquaponics

November 22, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Colton Allen, a seventh grader at King Science and Technology Magnet Center, counts the tilapia swimming circles in the horse trough. “Eleven?” he guesses. “Twelve?” It’s difficult to say, since the “tank” of his class’ aquaponics system is solid black.

“The system can take more,” explains magnet facilitator Kristine Denton, “but this is our let’s-make-sure-they-survive phase. Later today, we’re actually getting perch.”

“What?” Allen says. “I gotta be here for that.”

Is there a benefit to having perch versus tilapia in an aquaponics system?

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Raising seedlings, monitoring pH levels, and designing tanks that will keep the fish from ending up on the classroom floor are all responsibilities of the seventh-grade service-learning class at King Science Center.

“I don’t know yet,” Denton admits, laughing. “We’re going to find out.” Which is appropriate. The theme of King Center, one of Omaha Public Schools’ 19 magnet schools, is, after all, inquiry.

The food-growing system that holds pride of place in her seventh-grade service-learning class is the result of Denton’s desire to find “a really cool project that would get my students tied with the community.” In 2011, she attended the UNO Service Learning Academy, a weeklong program connecting public school teachers, professors, and the community, and discovered the aquaponics systems of Whispering Roots. She partnered with Greg Fripp, founder of the food education nonprofit, to bring the concept to her school, “and it’s been great ever since.”

Three years later, Fripp still supplies the fish and helps troubleshoot a system that’s not complex but is all about balance. “These kids are engaging with next-generation technology,” says Fripp. “You try to teach pH levels at the board, and their eyes glaze over. But if you point out that it’s a life or death issue for the fish, then, yeah, they’re engaged.”

DeAjai Philmon, an eighth grader, describes the concept of aquaponics with ease.

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The wastewater from the tilapia, she explains, is laced with ammonia, goes up a PVC pipe and dumps into a shallow wooden box of untreated 2x4s lined with plastic. Bacteria growing on the marble-sized clay balls that cover the plant roots in the box convert nitrites from the fish waste into nitrates, a fertilizer for the plants. About twice an hour, the box—essentially a gigantic biofilter—drains cleaned water back down to the fish, completing a cycle that encompasses water filtration, fish farming, and vegetable production. The most expensive parts of the system, Denton says, are the UV lighting that hang just above the plants and the heater that keeps the 100 or so gallons of water at 78 degrees for the tilapia.

“The plants are getting all their nutrients from the fish water,” Denton says. “You don’t need soil, you need the nutrients that come from the soil. Or in this case, the nutrients that come from the fish.”

The iceberg lettuce in this box is about two weeks old. “We harvested recently so we replanted seedlings,” Denton says, pointing to a set of six trays under grow lights. “We have some radishes, and we’re going to try peppers. We’re also going to try peas.” They’re climbing peas, so the kids will have to figure out how to give them proper support. “That’s like 90 percent of it,” she says, “figuring things out.”

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“Excuse me, Ms. Denton,” says Armani Price, also an eighth grader. “Is this basil?” She points to a tiny seedling with only a couple true leaves. Price says she’s getting better at identifying plants. She also assists with the school’s urban farm where she’s helped grow collard greens, jalapeños, bell peppers, tomatoes, watermelons, “and we did have a peach tree.” She’s discovering that fruit trees aren’t very easy.

Price and Philmon were part of the class that helped finish building the frame that holds the bed’s grow lights. Students are 100 percent involved in building structures, Denton says, as well as being in charge of crop rotation, water testing, and fish care. »
« “They’re responsible for making sure we have seeds and letting us know if we need to reorder.” Grants are in place for them to purchase supplies.

“We want to start a salt water system, too,” says Price. “[Ms. Denton] said we’d want to grow things like seaweed and kelp. Is kelp good?”

Denton allows that it’s okay while Philmon asserts, “It’s nasty.”

“We have to plant things that might not be part of our palette,” Denton says, explaining the importance of learning about food and growing environments in other cultures. Either shrimp or a variety of saltwater fish will be the marine culture, which is a bit trickier than freshwater. Fortunately, the school partners with the Henry Doorly Zoo, which Denton says is very understanding of a learning process that might result in the loss of a jellyfish or two.

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The first year, a class of about 19 students looked after the system. This year, Denton has 26 in her seventh-grade service learning class. Aquaponics is only part of the service learning class: This year, students will create lessons on video to show to other schools, ensuring that they exercise presentation skills alongside gardening and engineering and science. “The social aspect is really key as well,” Fripp says. “What we do every day is engage kids on so many levels.”

Another area of learning is in the art of giving. As part of her service-learning class, Denton and her students volunteer at Open Door Mission. When a food drive brought together a variety of canned and dry goods, some of her students asked, “Why can’t we donate fruit and lettuce?” Now, she and at least four kids take their aquaponics produce over to the mission after school every four to six weeks. “We’re able to harvest that quick,” Denton says. “And they immediately wash and serve it that night.”

Not exactly everything is donated. The students always eat a first harvest themselves, and they haven’t forgotten about the fish. A true aquaponics system is about raising fish to eat as well as produce, and Denton says her students decidedly do not view the tilapia as pets. “We haven’t eaten any yet,” she says, “but they keep asking for a fish fry.”