Auburn Aquaponics — a possible answer to empty factories

Water from the aquarium is pumped into the plant container and drains through an overflow valve back into the fish tank. Fish fertilize the plants; plants feed the fish. Red worms will be added to decompose organic materials, producing more food for the fish. The system is a closed loop. Commonly-eaten vegetables — tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and cabbage — are planted in hydrocorn, a porous material that resembles pumice. (Photo by Tim Bratina, Auburn High School teacher)

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

When we received an invitation to attend the Auburn Aquaponics event demonstrating efforts in sustainable agriculture, we decided we should see it; we were glad we did. We were impressed with both the demonstration and the active role the students had in the project. Their project provides a means to positively change existing food choices.

Their work illustrates another aspect of the growing urban agriculture movement, which encourages growing a variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, fish and honey in the urban setting.

Recognizing the potentially positive role of a food project, Auburn teacher Tim Bratina, after teaching this school year’s first-semester social studies from the book, offered his students the alternative of planning and implementing a project. The students chose the project.

While at first glance aquaponics seems to belong in a biology or engineering class, the problems it potentially solves are social — people not getting enough food, not producing it themselves but relying on others for it, eating an unbalanced diet with too many calories and too little nutrition.

The project, aquaponics, can produce food that is nutritious and organic while increasing self-sufficiency and on a large scale, producing jobs for those who need them.

Students studied aquaponics, its advantages and processes. They assembled a simple system that functioned well at the class’ open house May 20. The cost was $800, with an additional $25 for chemicals to test the water. Only 0.12 amps are needed to run it. Next year, a solar PV panel might be installed to run it, making it completely self-sustaining.

Commonly-eaten vegetables — tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and cabbage — are planted in hydrocorn, a porous material that resembles pumice. Yellow perch, a native species, live in the aquarium beneath the plants. While they are small now, they will soon be edible size. Water from the aquarium is pumped into the plant container and drains through an overflow valve back into the fish tank. Fish fertilize the plants; plants feed the fish. Red worms will be added to decompose organic materials, producing more food for the fish. The system is a closed loop.

Students interacted with visitors, responding to their questions. They were involved and well-spoken, providing clear explanations of the reasons and need for such systems worldwide and the basic chemistry involved. They know this could provide food for the world and new jobs for people.

Before starting the project, the class visited The Plant, an abandoned factory at 46th and Ashland, in the Back of the Yards in Chicago. The effort is a sustainable and economic development project including a small-craft food business, brewing beer and kombucha and using renewable energy sources produced at the site. The processes are interconnected, so the waste from one is used as a resource in the next one.

FarmedHere, a commercial organic operation in another former warehouse, produces fresh lettuce and herbs for local stores, including Whole Foods. The students see the numerous closed factories in Rockford as possible sites for commerical production.

The project, aquaponics, can produce food that is nutritious and organic while increasing self-sufficiency, and on a large scale, producing jobs for those who need them. (Photo by Tim Bratina, Auburn High School teacher)

An entire class was involved. However, Mr. Bratina gives special credit to: Joshua Bragg, Marco Brandt-Lopez, Jessica Burright, Jacob Davis, Keegan Ditsch, Stephen Hahlen, Jaki Hernandez, Jaylan Holliman, Syvana Lamparter, Haley McGuire, Malik Minor, Sabina Mujdzic, Lauren Myers, Brianna Phillips, Allison Richmond, Alyssa Riffle, Samia Smith, Andre Trammell and Alexandra Williams.

From the May 29-June 4, 2013, issue

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