Women in Hydroponics: Rebecca Nelson

Maximum Yield published a feature story on Rebecca Nelson in their April Industry News magazine. See story below.

Rebecca Nelson, co-founder and co-owner of Nelson and Pade, Inc., a company that provides aquaponic systems as well as the
training, guidance and technical support people need to get started and be
successful in aquaponics, can safely be called a pioneer in her field. Her
company offered the first aquaponics course in the world in 1998 and 10 years
later, she authored the first comprehensive book on aquaponics. Rebecca gives
Maximum Yield’s Industry News the rundown on how she got into this field and
why aquaponics is a game changer for the agriculture industry.

See full article

In 1982, Rebecca Nelson, co-founder and co-owner of Nelson and Pade, Inc., saw
the Living with the Land exhibit at Epcot Theme Park at Walt Disney World in
Florida and fell in love with hydroponics. “As a foodie and avid gardener, it
piqued my interest and I saw it as a way that we could grow tomatoes and other
veggies in the winter time,” she remembers. “We set up some hobby systems and I
was hooked.”

In 1986, Rebecca and partner John Pade had a video
production company and the pair wrote and produced the first video on
hydroponics, which led to more videos on the subject. “We travelled around the
country interviewing commercial growers and I loved the technology and
lifestyle,” says Rebecca. “We had property, water and the time to build
commercial hydroponic greenhouses, in which we grew about 50,000 lb. of
hydroponic tomatoes per year.” Trademarking the name—Grandpa’s Garden—they were
selling produce from their Mariposa, California, operation to high-end stores
in central California long before the “local food movement” existed.

In the early 1990’s, Rebecca learned of the work being done by Dr. Rakocy at
the University of Virgin Islands, combining recirculating aquaculture with
hydroponics. “I have always had a passion for fish culture and had raised fish
in aquariums, tanks and ponds,” she explains. “The realization that we could
combine our hydro systems with fish culture was life-changing. We started
building aquaponic systems, researching different species and developing aquaponic
methods and designs. We already really understood plant needs and environmental
control from our commercial hydroponics business.” All of the research in
aquaponics up until then was focused on adding a few plants to fish culture,
but Rebecca and John looked at it from the point of view that they could raise
plants in a soilless system with the use of an all-natural fertilizer from the
fish waste, and produce a secondary food crop—the fish—at the same time. By the
mid ‘90’s, the partners had converted one of their greenhouses to aquaponics
and combining fish and plant culture has been the focus ever since. “From a
nutritional standpoint, aquaponics produces a protein crop and a vegetable
crop, all from one infrastructure and one body of water,” says Rebecca.

She describes the early years of the business as amazing, financially
challenging, fun, rewarding and difficult. “I never really considered our early
years as a struggle, it was more a willingness to just do what it took to build
a business, pay the bills and stay happy and focused,” shares Rebecca. In 2006,
they relocated to Montello, Wisconsin, to be closer to family. “Wisconsinites
are very friendly, giving and hard-working, and after spending more and more
time back in our home state, we decided to stay, despite the cold winters,” she

While there are new individuals and businesses getting into aquaponics all the
time, Rebecca and John’s extensive history and level of experience makes their
company unique, having been involved for more than 20 years in aquaponics and
30 years in hydroponics. “That, along with the combination of the diverse
skills sets that John and I both have, has allowed us to do a lot of different
things over the past 30 years and created a platform to develop the science of
aquaponics into an industry,” says Rebecca. “Our philosophy is to help people
get started and be successful in aquaponics. We achieve this by providing
science-based, proven aquaponic systems that are highly efficient and
productive. Plus, we provide the training, guidance and technical support they
need.” One of the company’s goals is food security for all nations. “John and I
truly believe that aquaponics has the potential to change the face of
agriculture as well as increase the availability of fresh, nutritious food for
people around the world.”

Some of the pioneering work Rebecca has done, in conjunction
with her partner, in the field of aquaponics, includes starting up the
Aquaponics Journal in 1997 to provide the latest technology, information,
research and events; offering the first aquaponics course in 1998; and helping
to develop the first university-level aquaponics course. Rebecca has also
spoken at events around the world on aquaponics, authored the first
comprehensive book on aquaponics, Aquaponic Food Production, in 2008, and is
now an adjunct instructor with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where
she helped develop the aquaponics course and is helping to develop the first
university-level certificate program in aquaponics. “In the past three years,
we have had people from 46 countries and 49 US states attend the Aquaponics
Master Classes we offer in Montello, Wisconsin.”

Early on in the company’s history, Rebecca and John did
everything, from sales to design, teaching to accounting, running the
greenhouse to building the systems they sold, but in the last five years,
Nelson and Pade has seen major growth, going from just one employee besides the
owners in 2008 to a 15-person team. “We are fortunate to have a fantastic team
of people who are passionate about our company, our mission and aquaponics,”
says Rebecca. “Their roles range from aquaponic systems assembly, greenhouse
operation and management, sales, design and technical support and company
management. My focus now is mostly on introducing aquaponics to as many people
as possible through speaking engagements and writing, co-ordinating our team
and helping our new and existing growers be successful. My favorite thing at
work is probably something I do every day, and that is to walk into our
5,000-sq.-ft. demonstration greenhouse and enjoy the space, lush plants and
happy fish. It is especially nice during the winter when it is cold and snowy
outside. You walk into our greenhouse and it is bright, fresh and wonderful.”

The focus at Nelson and Pade is on developing and refining the technology as
well as educating people about aquaponics and Rebecca’s ultimate goal is to
feed as many people as possible using Clear Flow Aquaponic Systems®, which she
believes are the most efficient and productive aquaponic systems available. She
says people are passionate about aquaponics and new practitioners promote
themselves as experts every day, but people should ensure they are not
mistaking enthusiasm for knowledge when looking for advice or guidance.

As for women in the indoor gardening industry, she says women already naturally
gravitate toward growing and sharing food. “The only new part of the equation
is the indoor environments and soilless systems,” Rebecca explains. “I
encourage women from all walks of life to learn about and explore the
opportunities in soilless gardening and indoor farming. The quality of the food
you grow is very high, both in flavor and nutrition, the lifestyle is very
rewarding and it is environmentally friendly. I am very fortunate in that I
love what I do, I love coming to work and I never feel like I have a job.” She
says the industry is seeing more and more women embrace these methods of
growing and get involved and as the industry evolves, she expects more women to
take on leadership roles, although, she adds, there are already some strong
female personalities impacting the industry.