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 green plants at Bishop Walsh School in Cumberland in western Maryland owe their existence to aquaponics, all fastidiously tended by students at western Maryland's only pre-K-12 Catholic school.
The 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 people who are 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. Burkett's brainchild was built last school year at a cost of about $25,000. In recent years, the school used a ZipGrow Tower for hydroponic farming (water-based agriculture without fish) and erected an outdoor greenhouse to give students experience in agribusiness.
Building a full-scale center for aquaponics was the next step, said Burkett, noting that the aquaponics lab has 39 fish in one large tank and another four in a smaller display tank. The hydroponics, aquaponics, and greenhouse activities are coordinated through two extracurricular clubs: BWGrows for high schoolers and BWGrows Jr. for middle schoolers. Related lessons are also provided to students of all ages through science classes.
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