Swiss chard, jalapeño peppers and lettuce grow in clay balls at Central Nine Career Center.
Shrimp sit in a large, blue pool just feet away from the vegetables. Tilapia swim around in a separate tank, ready to be harvested and used at the technical school’s restaurant.
The school’s aquaponics system, a part of the landscaping program, has grown this year with the addition of thousands of shrimp. The system is now one of the most robust aquaponics systems in the state.
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Aquaponics is the merging of raising aquatic animals with hydroponics, which is growing plants in water.
The system was started about five years ago when students and their educator starting growing Swiss chard using the saltwater and waste that was produced with raising about 100 tilapia, said Joe Ramey, agriculture teacher at Central Nine Career Center.
The idea of starting the aquaponics system was to teach the students alternative ways to raise food, Ramey said.
The students will need those skills as the agricultural industry evolves, he said.
“We wanted to show the kids there are other things we could raise indoors that we can use as an alternative nutrition source,” Ramey said. “I think that it is big in the research right now, most of our earth is used in saltwater. You are looking for ways to utilize the source.”
All the elements of the system are together indoors, with heat lamps, water and clay balls being used to raise the vegetables. The tanks that hold the fish and shrimp are just steps away from the vegetables.
Later this year, a closed-loop system will be designed and installed to help transport water from the fish and shrimp tanks directly to the vegetables.
Part of what makes aquaponics successful is that the waste the shrimp and tilapia deposit in the water makes rich fertilizer that will help the vegetables grow, Ramey said.
“It is to show students that there are a lot of resources out there that we are not tapping into,” he said.
Tilapia has been farmed in the school since the advent of the aquaponics program. Shrimp was added this year as an additional source that students could work with, Ramey said.
Students are responsible for maintenance, including checking the pH of the water to make sure it can support the fish. They also feed the shrimp and fish and clean out dead fish from the tank.
Before the shrimp came to the school, students were responsible for researching and deciding how they would be cared for and what they would store them in.
And what the students do is ever-changing based on what they are learning. At least one student wants to move the plants to the shrimp tank by having them grow in hoops above the water.
Students are getting the necessary skills they need to compete in the agricultural workforce and to help solve some problems of the world, said Charles Roberts, senior at Central Nine and Franklin Central High School.
“I see it as growing plants for other countries,” he said. “We can grow plants out of saltwater.”
Plants, shrimp and tilapia will be harvested and given to Central Nine Career Center’s culinary arts department, which will in turn serve it to the public in the restaurant, Ramey said.
Students also enjoy experimenting with other ways to grow food, they said.
“You need to find different ways to grow plants,” said Josh Hager, a junior in the program. “We have to (have) people who know about it.”