Snapshot of a Future Food & Freshwater Leader
Bay View resident Jesse Blom wants to be part of the solution. That means a bit of experimentation and a lot of learning.
Blom helped transform an 1898 Queen Anne Style home on Euclid Ave in Bay View to Heart Haus, created to demonstrate sustainable urban community.
Not only do vegetable patches fill its front and backyard, greens are growing off the kitchen.
Blom’s domain is under ground where he has set up an interconnected systems of fish tanks and vegetable-growing flats, called aquaponics.
“These particular techniques I am using here which use 12-inch deep grow bed that floods and drains, this is stuff that was originally developed in Australia and it’s taken a little time for it to migrate to Milwaukee,” Blom says.
Blom grew up on the move. His father’s work took the family around the globe. Ultimately, they put down roots in Mequon when Blom was 12.
He was drawn to outdoor adventure and spent summers in northern Wisconsin at camp. At age 18 and then summers throughout college, Blom led younger kids on wilderness treks.
“You know tons of canoeing and you go out for 5, 6, 7, fourteen days at a time with a group of young people and that whole experience, it can become such a tremendous learning opportunity,” Blom says.
By the time he graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in cultural anthropology, Blom says he was sold on experiential learning.
Then back in Milwaukee, “I showed up at the Sweet Water Organics farm in the fall of 2010,” Blom says.
Its founders were hoping to create a successful model blending business with education.
In 2009, workers dug trenches within an old factory building in Bay View and filled them with fish - massive racks of tomatoes and greens grew above.
“I was interested in agriculture, but I didn’t have a background in it. So I pursued that interest. I showed up at Sweet Water and started volunteering. And then there was a need for educators. So I was able to fill that need with my background in education. And I’ve been doing that now for four and a half years,” Blom says.
By spring 2013, the business closed its doors, but its satellite – a foundation – lives on, and Jesse Blom with it.
Sweet Water Foundation works in partnership with a cluster of MPS schools where aquaponics and urban ag programs are being nurtured.
“The public schools have a grant that comes from AT&T and the NEA Foundation aimed towards STEM education and using aquaponics as a tool. Sweet Water Foundation and I am fortunate to serve the schools toward that grant,” Blom explains.
Blom works closely with the science teachers in five MPS schools, helping to construct their systems, conferring on the health of fish and plant.
He also delivers the occasion grow lights and water pumps. That’s just what he was doing days later at MacDowell Montessori High School, west of downtown Milwaukee.
Science teacher Nick Beerman discovered aquaponics equipment collecting dust, when he came to MacDowell. Jesse Blom helped him piece it together.
Blom and Beerman strategize on ways to increase brainstorming among the MPS schools to learn from one another.
“I would like to do some information sharing between you and the other schools. Not just among teachers but also students,” Bloms says.
Blom says interest is crossing international borders. “There’s a guy in Mumbai, India who is doing an aquaponics project over there and he wants to do a Skype session with some of your students because he’s got students working on the same thing."
Teacher Nick Beerman says some of his students can’t get enough of aquaponics.“I’ve got some students who are really keen. One student actually is thinking this is something he wants to do and there’s a fisheries internship this summer that he’s going to try to go after,” Beerman says.
Jesse Blom is a quiet guy – but he beams with this news.
“I feel like we’ve had success in Milwaukee getting students more interested and engaged in science through aquaponics, but now the next step is getting them plugged into career opportunities such as fisheries, water sciences, food and beverage industry,” Blom says.
But before you know it, Blom has to skedaddle. He’s working on a master’s degree in freshwater sciences at UWM and he needs to take time to prepare for a presentation class.
“The topic of the presentation is Great Lakes stressors and our particular topic is chemical pollutants and so my portion in that is looking at pesticides as chemical pollutants in the Great Lakes ecosystem. So I’m meeting with the other students right now, we’re planning out our presentation, who’s going to talk when, that sort of thing,” Blom says.
In the light-filled space of the freshwater schools expanded facility, Blom tweaks the plan with two fellow grad students. He’s also delving into water policy and landed a research assistant position.
“Last semester I was focusing on water technology and policy around that and this semester I’m focusing more on the United Nations Global Compact Cities Programme. I’m actually proposing an internship where I’ll be working on that program for the next year and that’s really based on Milwaukee as a water centric city and how do we learn from other cities,” Blom says.
Blom has more on his plate – far too much to take in right now, but says his greatest role is sharing parenthood with his wife Eileen.
Blom walks his son to school each day and covers late night duties at home and sandwiches studying and sleep in between. Walking his baby girl back home, Blom ponders his future.
“I’m really interested in getting people more connected to the natural environment and getting people more connected to each other. If I can find myself in a job that does those two things, I’ll be happy,” Blom says.
Tucking a blanket around his 10 month old daughter, Blom confesses, he doesn’t know if can do all that while providing for his family, but he aims to try.