US (ME): Down East high schoolers are learning how to grow potatoes without soil

When Robin LaRochelle started as the aquaculture and aquaponics teacher at Jonesport-Beals High School in September, she was excited to network with other teachers in Maine that do what she does. She soon found out there weren’t any. Though other teachers and schools have done strong work to teach aquaculture units or do aquaponics as part of science classes, LaRochelle is believed to be the only full-time high school teacher in the Pine Tree State solely dedicated to the subjects, teaching how to raise tilapia and grow plants in aquaponic systems.

It’s a dream job for her and she hopes it opens doors for students and familiarizes them with the growing industries. “When I was in high school, I didn’t really know about all the jobs out there that you could have,” she said. “That’s really my goal for this program: to open the eyes of these students.”

Jonesport-Beals first offered the courses last school year. Now, LaRochelle teaches two classes — one aquaponics and one aquaculture — that each meet for just under two hours every school day. In the aquaponics class, students learn how to grow plants without soil. LaRochelle has one setup where plant roots sit in a set of rail-shaped tubes. Water passes underneath the plants via a pump and grow lights simulate the sun — creating a chance to grow lettuce, basil, kale and other greens year-round Down East.

Students can grow a head of lettuce in about 50 days and often sell their produce to school staff. In a greenhouse outside, LaRochelle has two, 200-plus gallon tilapia tanks that hold about 70 tilapia combined. One tank feeds into another aquaponics system, sending the nutrient-rich aquaculture water to a plant bed where students are attempting to grow lettuce, potatoes, avocados and sunflowers.  

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