Michele Madison

Tallahassee, FL, United StatesAge: 24

Tell us a bit about yourself!

I’m the founder of Farming The Future, a local business that designs and builds greenhouses and aquaponics systems in schools (including local elementary and high schools), juvenile detention centers, low income/food desert communities, private backyards, and commercial-scale farms. We raise tilapia and catfish in ponds, pump that water into finely calculated bioreactors, grow vegetables out of the bioreactors, and then send that water back to the fish. We also pair these with external terrestrial gardens to add more growing space. We use these as a tool for STEM, agricultural, and vocational training. All the food grown goes to the school cafeteria, and the leftovers go to women’s shelters, homeless shelters, and other charitable organizations. Over the years, I have also developed a hands-on STEM curriculum aligned with Florida state standards, so after we design and build the systems, we then return to the schools weekly to teach our STEM program.

Finally, we provide a service for homes that we call “foodscaping”. By installing low maintenance and environmentally-friendly foodscape kits in backyards, we provide people with the opportunity to save money at the grocery store, an enriching and educational environment for their children, and healthy nutrient-dense food.

I also serve as an environmental technician for Phoenix Environmental Group, a staff scientist for HSW Engineering, and am pursuing a degree in Chemical Engineering. Coming from a low-income background, my mother would tell me, “Michele, you have to go to school. You have to get an education so you never have to live like me. You have to go to college.” In school, I was bullied, put down, and told I would never amount to anything. Despite the bullies, I was determined to continue my education and empower others.  

I overcame many challenges growing up, from serving as my mother’s caretaker and working to pay the bills after her stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis, to enrolling in a hospital homebound program to take classes over the phone due to my severe Crohn’s Disease. Nonetheless, I graduated! I never knew I could be a scientist or engineer. But here I am. I want to give those kids whose schools can’t even afford a beaker, a chance to find their own way out.

What inspired you to become a champion for the environment and environmental education?

I was interested in alternative fuels and, specifically, algal production for biofuels. While researching these, I met a Master’s student who was funded by the Department of Defense to conduct research growing algae in waste water for biofuels. They had an aquaponics system in their yard and showed it to me. The next day, I quit my job, changed my major to engineering, and started sleeping in a greenhouse.

I studied microbiology, chemistry, and systems design, and started building with whatever I could find on the street. I knew these systems were more important than anything else I could do to help the environment and people. Living in Florida, I see firsthand the impacts of big agriculture on the environment. Aquaponics is a closed loop recirculating system, using one tenth of the water that traditional farming uses, and doesn’t require petrol byproducts for fertilizer. It can grow vegetables and protein anywhere, regardless of whether the land is arable. It is an innovative yet ancient technique.

I wanted so badly to go to college, but without financial assistance I decided that if no one would give me the opportunity, then I would make the opportunity myself. By studying, researching, and building these systems, I hoped to prove myself enough to earn a scholarship to go to school. Now, I am employed by two engineering firms and run a business that is actually contracted through the college I once strived to attend. 

What advice would you give to the next generation of leaders that are looking to bring about positive change in their communities through EE?

The advice I would give is simple: it’s going to be hard and it’s going to be frustrating, but whatever you do, don’t stop.

People, especially in low-income neighborhoods, aren’t ignorant to environmental issues by choice. The lack of environmental education paired with the intense pressure of consumerism in these communities is a tragedy.

Education is everything. People don’t know what they don’t know. They will fight you in the beginning, maybe not listening and thinking it’s not cool, but if you care and keep trying then they will hear you. You will change their lives, and the environment, one student at a time.

What pro-environmental behavior do you think would make a big impact if everyone in the world started doing it?

Stop eating meat—the largest drain on our precious resources and one of the largest environmental pollutants. Animal feed and the waste from slaughter and processing all end up in a dump, creating a big environmental issue. Commercial and agricultural water use can make up to 99% of our fresh water resources, compared to the 1% used residentially. For example, one almond requires 50 gallons of water. Let’s start with meat, though. We do not need it. There are many plant- or insect-based protein sources. I myself breed and eat mealworms, and teach my students how to breed them as well!

If you could be any animal or plant, what would you be and why?

The list of animals I would be ecstatic to live as is quite long, ranging from Orcas, one of the fastest evolving species, to Nitrospira, the beneficial nitrifying bacteria that is a critical part of the nitrogen cycle. However, I would have to go with Daphnia.

Daphnia is a small aquatic crustacean, commonly called a water flea, which play a crucial role in our modern, everyday lives. Daphnia are great bioindicators for water quality since their reaction to water toxicity is similar to ours. They are commonly used in municipal water quality labs, and they have quite the personality. Normally kept in small aquariums, you can often find them lining up to ride the bubbles from the tank’s aerator! Although they have a short life span, they are crucial for both their natural environment as well as modern day water quality compliance, and I would be honored to be a part of that!