As Michael “Mick” Burkett proudly hoisted a large tray of Bibb lettuce plants from a shallow pool of clear water, blue tilapia darted in ever-changing directions inside a nearby fish tank.
The bright green plants at Bishop Walsh School in Cumberland owe their existence to the fish, drawing nutrients for their growth from the cold-blooded vertebrates’ waste. There’s no soil around – only fish, water, plants, and a system of overhead lighting, all fastidiously tended by students at Western Maryland’s only pre-K-12 Catholic school.
“What you can’t see are the bacteria – and those are really the stars of the show,” said Burkett, chairman of Bishop Walsh’s science department. “The bacteria take the waste from the fish, and they put it into a usable form for the plants that take up those nutrients, with the water going back to the fish cleaner than when it left.”
The end results are rows and rows of thriving vegetable plants that students harvest for use in the school cafeteria, to sell to members of the school community, and to help feed the hungry at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Cumberland. Eventually, students hope to sell their produce – lettuce, peas, and more – to nearby restaurants. As for the fish? As they grow and are replaced by younger upstarts, they may eventually become the main course for Lenten fish fries or be turned into fish tacos.
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