Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Stewardship in Action: Sarah Kendall Taber

Sarah Kendall Taber

Plant Scientist and Eco-Entrepreneur

Sarah TaberHow did you become interested in environmental issues?

I was raised in an environmentalist family. They’d probably laugh if they found out I called them that because they weren’t really loud or activist about it– they’re just very practical people and part of that was recognizing that if you don’t have good air, you don’t breathe. If you don’t have good water, you don’t drink. My parents just treated that as an obvious fact. My dad got brown lung just from growing up in LA in the ‘70s which I guess leaves a certain impression on you.

When our family went on a trip we didn’t go to the beach or Disney World. (Except for that one time when we lived in Miami– you can’t escape the Disney if you live in Florida!) We’d go to the Everglades or canoeing around in Boundary Waters. I don’t know if that was supposed to turn us into tree huggers– I think Mom and Dad just liked quiet. But we had a lot of opportunities to see nature in person and get used to it being there.

So how did you go from that, to becoming an entrepreneur?

I think a lot of people have this mindset of “environment vs people.” That it’s a zero-sum game– and I think that’s poppycock.

One of the huge benefits of getting an education in science, and especially in agricultural science, was being able to see how much of our current agricultural system is not as necessary as agribusiness would like us to think. I knew there was a better way to do things. I also knew there were plenty of people talking about better ways to do things.

What I saw a shortage of was people actually taking those good ideas and turning them into constructive change. I mean, we have hundreds if not thousands of eco-entrepreneurs in this country doing amazing things to meet human needs in more constructive ways– but that’s still such a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed.

I don’t know anybody– not even the hardest of hardcore businessmen– who says “I want to sucker-punch the environment as much as possible today! It’s my favorite thing to do!” Environmental damage doesn’t happen because people want it. It’s because we don’t have good pathways to live our lives without environmental side effects. And that’s my goal: to make the good pathways that people already want to walk on.

How does Mormonism relate to environmental stewardship for you?

It’s not hard. It’s simple Christianity.

In the LDS faith we believe that living a good life means following Christ’s example. We believe in serving, freeing the captive, clothing and feeding the needy. So I figure that even if we can’t spend our time running around on the street healing people like Jesus, the very least we can do is not exploit. Not imprison. Not take food and health out of the mouths of the poor. Mind you, human beings depend on the earth– or what we in the eco business call “environmental services”– for all of those things. So when we behave in ways that are destructive to that life support system, we are hurting God’s children.

Now I know this isn’t the way we usually talk in church. We like to talk about direct, personal acts like not robbing banks (and I am also 100% behind not robbing banks). Talking about indirect things like environmental damage can make people uncomfortable. But let me ask you something. Can you find me anywhere in the Bible or Book of Mormon or any other piece of scripture that says “Thou shalt not use the brains I have given you to learn how to behave responsibly”? “I gave thee the Tree of Knowledge, but I wast just kidding, thou shalt not use it”?

No?

Then let us reason together.

A great example happened very close to us, recently. Florida has miles and miles of clam and oyster farms along the Gulf Coast. Shellfish farms are a beautiful thing, environmentally speaking. They grow a tasty, nutritious, and valuable food that brings a lot of money to the state. Unlike most farms they don’t pollute at all. They actually help coastal habitats a lot because they restore the ecosystem function of filtering out excess plankton that these areas used to get from wild shellfish.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill wound up seriously hurting a lot of these shellfish farms. The oil didn’t come close to most Florida shellfish farms– people just stopped buying shellfish from anywhere in the Gulf because they heard the water down here was bad. Because of the spill’s unusual dispersal, Florida shellfish growers will also need to monitor their farms for oil contamination for the next ten years at an estimated cost of $60 million. That’s just Florida where we mostly got peripheral damage. Shellfish farms in Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi closer to the actual spill have been affected much worse.

Now mind you, this is the damage that happens in a wealthy developed country. People in the US can stop eating shellfish from the Gulf if there’s a problem.

So imagine how things are going in coastal fishing villages on the Niger Delta where oil spills are happening all the time. They don’t fish to sell it– they fish to eat dinner that night. They don’t have any choice but to eat what comes out of that water. It’s also the only source of water they’ve got for eating, bathing, washing their clothes, and drinking.

It’s a pretty common misconception that only the wealthy can “afford” to worry about environmental issues. But I’ll tell you, it’s the poorest people who get hit the worst when the life support systems fail. The wealthy can afford to have their food trucked in from far away. The rich can afford well-built homes and property insurance that protect them from extreme weather and fancy water filters when mine wash and sewage contaminate the water. It’s the poor who suffer the worst. And the cruel irony is that when you’re poor, you don’t have the leisure time (or the education or the standing in society) to get involved in anything beyond the immediate security of you and your family. That’s why this belief that environmental issues are important “only for the rich” is so common– even though in reality, it’s only the wealthy who can afford not to worry about these things.

What is your business about?

I’m developing a commercial-scale aquaponic system. (Then I always want to say “And I’m a Mormon!”) A lot of people are familiar with aquaponics, but for those that aren’t, it’s basically putting fish farming and hydroponic vegetables together. Fish farming releases a lot of nutrients. You can either treat that as pollution to be gotten rid of, or you can treat it like a resource and make good with it by using it to grow another useful crop. That’s aquaponics.

When I first learned about aquaponics the idea immediately resonated; it just made so much sense to me. It’s a very elegant idea. It also has a lot of the characteristics of a disruptive technology– something that could completely overturn the way we do things, and make a lot of money in the process. Pretty appealing for an eco-entrepreneur, right?

Fortunately, I was in graduate school at the time which kept me from racing right into starting an aquaponic farm. And as I kept reading in spare moments over the years I discovered what an incredibly high percentage of aquaponics businesses go belly-up.

So I dug around. It started to look like a lot of these business failures went back to well-meaning people who didn’t have a very concrete understanding of the biological or chemical processes that make it work. These are very complicated biological systems to run. It’s like building a submarine and then running it nonstop for years. (The financial aspect of a two-product business is a whole ‘nother issue in its own right!) It became clear as I looked around that there just aren’t very good resources available about how to do aquaponics. At this point most lay people couldn’t educate themselves on the science behind aquaponics well enough to do it commercially even if they wanted to.

For most people this is a huge barrier. For a scientist, this is opportunity knocking!

I’m still in the very early stages: finding land to work on, raising funds, deciding exactly what hypotheses I want to test out, etc. I’m very excited to have just started talking to a commercial sturgeon farm about partnering up at their place. It turns out they’ve been wanting to get into aquaponics for years, but they’re fish people so they didn’t quite know where to get started. I’m a plant person who would benefit from working with people who are already fish experts.

Whatever path I take to the final product, I’m very much looking forward to developing a a socially, environmentally, and financially sustainable business. You can follow the adventures of a Mormon aquaponic scientist at owlspringsfarm.wordpress.com, and as Owl Springs Farm on Facebook and Twitter.

This is the fourth of a series of profiles of Church members that exemplify stewardship in some aspect of their lives.  We hope to show the diverse and wonderful ways that Church members show respect and wise use of the earth’s resources.  If you would like to suggest someone to highlight in the future, let us know

  • Peter says:

    I don’t know anything about aquaponics, and I certainly don’t know what specific combination of aquaculture and other disciplines will yield an environmentally and economically sustainable business model . What I do know is that there is a crying need for the creativity and innovation that Sarah is practicing. If anyone can chart the path to a better future, it will be someone like Sarah. Good luck!