Volume 3: December 2010

Sustainable Agriculture in Action: Implementing Community Aquaponic Systems

written by Zach Piso ’11 – Fahrner Fellow

Zach Piso ’11 talks with high school student visitors to the Aquaponics Greenhouse in Steffee Hall.

From June – August 2010, I worked under the guidance of Professor TJ Eatmon to develop an ecological education initiative focused on sustainable agriculture, with a special focus on aquaponics. The term aquaponics is derived from a combination of hydroponics (soil-less plant growth) and aquaculture (fish farming). In a natural ecosystem, animal waste is the primary fertilizer for plant growth, and aquaponic systems attempt to replicate this symbiotic relationship by using crop plants to filter the dirty water and grow off of the surplus nutrients. In a well-constructed aquaponic system, the only necessary input is sunlight, and all waste is purified within the system. Consequently, aquaponics represents a promising new frontier in sustainable agriculture because of its potential uses in urban settings where suitable growing land is not available.

Allegheny College’s aquaponic facility in the Steffee greenhouse consists of a 400-gallon research system and a 100-gallon display system, along with smaller systems that were maintained and studied throughout my internship experience. Through these systems we are exploring the most palatable options of fish species to raise in our tanks, such as local perch or trout. As a result, this summer we developed a series of smaller aquaponic systems, which housed a number of new species of fish and plants that were intended to represent the flora and fauna of the French Creek waterway, providing an educational experience for local students. A small system was also set up at the Woodcock Nature Center as part of an educational initiative in which students were given tours of the facilities and encouraged to try the tomatoes and herbs that thrive in the aquaponic system. We also created a website to share these experiences and encourage casual hobbyists to visit our systems or to build their own. We are also excited because many local teachers have volunteered to install small aquaponic displays in their classrooms. Our summer projects culminated in the installation of a 100-gallon display system at the iconic Meadville Market House, which allows visitors to harvest herbs and vegetables as they pass through this historic site. In the long run, we also hope to forge a partnership with an Allegheny alum who runs a fish hatchery in Bosnia, where several war veterans find sustainable and fulfilling employment.