Auburn aquaponics revisited

From left: Plant roots at Auburn High’s aquaponics; a luscious mesclun patch at Auburn’s aquaponics; Marquee Schultz with tomatoes and chives at Auburn High School; and an 8-foot tall tomato plant indoors at Rockford Auburn High School.
From left: Plant roots at Auburn High’s aquaponics; a luscious mesclun patch at Auburn’s aquaponics; Marquee Schultz with tomatoes and chives at Auburn High School; and an 8-foot tall tomato plant indoors at Rockford Auburn High School.

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

Learning a new set of skills or competencies requires persistence and practice. This fall semester’s Auburn High School sociology class is building on the successes of previous classes. Last week, they held an open house to showcase their new, improved aquaponics system. Their work demonstrates another aspect of the growing urban agriculture movement, which encourages growing a variety of foods in urban settings. The project can produce food that is nutritious and organic, while increasing self-sufficiency and — on a large scale — producing jobs for those who need them.

We were greeted at the classroom door by Mykeal Holliman, who offered to explain the problems associated with polar icecap melting caused by global warming. The student, new to Auburn, clarified that the major cause is the use of fossil fuels. In addition to decreasing their use, he offered small steps that individuals could take, including walking more and using compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Nicholas Pagan and Connor Kloss then described the oceans’ jellyfish explosion, which they explained results from excess nitrogen in the waters. Fossil fuels and nitrogen fertilizer runoff are blamed. Populations of poisonous jellyfish are threatening the ecology of specific areas in the seas. They felt that creating awareness of the problem is the first step to solving it. Sea turtles need to be protected, since they eat jellyfish.

They led us to the greenhouse, where a large aquaponics system had been constructed. After building one at school, they are interested in building their own during Christmas break. They also plan to press algae raised by the students to collapse cell walls and collect lipids for biodiesel.

The project’s impact extends beyond the school. Connor has been to the Madison, Wisconsin, farmers’ market with his parents and also harvests vegetables from his grandfather’s garden. Other students, like Jamia Carter, are more aware of nutrition, scrutinizing the school’s cafeteria lunches.

The system itself has grown. Fresh vegetables are grown there and donated to the Rock River Valley Food Pantry.

The major gardener, Marquee Schultz, led the tour of the plants and fish. Perch have been joined by bluegill. None of them has been harvested yet. Hydrocorn (kiln-fired clay pebbles) topped with nutrient-rich soil in net pots serves as the major rooting medium. Adding soil improved production. She explained the chemical cycle, ammonia-based fish excrement is consumed by bacteria on the Hydrocorn, making nitrogen available for plant roots to absorb in the water pumped through the aquaponic system. The entire system is independent and interdependent.

Marquee planted many of the hearty plants and showed us masses of roots. A stand of robust mesclun flourished under grow lights. Leaves of many shapes were a delight to the eye and undoubtedly delicious. We tasted a cherry tomato picked from an 8-foot-tall plant, along with a bite of tangy chives. Eggplant, lettuce and spinach are also successfully grown. The class is now attempting to coax cucumbers to ripen. Since space is limited, the students are experimenting to increase yield. They also plan to increase plant diversity with a goal of 200 vegetable plants grown in the greenhouse.

Teacher Tim Bratina explained that most of their recent funding for last spring’s $1,500 “raft system” project comes from the Community Action Gardens Grant through the City of Rockford. The price of this fall’s new “neutral film technique” system was less than $500, paid for by last year’s leftover candy sales. Students had sold candy, raising $2,500 for the first two aquaponic units two years ago, but the healthy schools program ended the sales. He would like to see this program expanded with Auburn’s guidance to other schools showing interest. He also promotes the project as part of the maker movement education philosophy.

The project continues to move outward. A student from last year, Alex Williams, is now at Rock Valley College pursuing an education in urban farming.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail

From the Dec. 24-30, 2014, issue

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