The dream to create an aquaponic farm on the campus of Renaissance Charter School at Crown Point was more than two years in the making for Principal Brett Taylor. The hands-on learning concept made its debut Friday, Sept. 4, with city of Ocoee staff and representatives from Our Charter Schools USA in attendance and a closed-circuit television broadcasting the opening ceremony to all the students.
Taylor was excited to be able to offer something unique to students — a chance to experience an aquaponic farm in action, from seed to produce, with their own hands doing the work. And, what’s more, the lessons in the farm can be tied into classroom lessons in subjects such as science, math and social studies, he said. A curriculum for each grade currently is being formed.
Backyard Farm Express, a sustainable farm that grows nutrient-rich produce, built and will manage the project. Mark Pester, president of the farming company, said, “The food we eat is either filling us or killing us.”
This is BFE’s seventh educational aquaponics farm, and Pester is encouraged by students’ willingness to taste something new and different.
Aquaponics is a natural balance between healthy fish, naturally occurring organic bacteria and “truly amazing produce plants,” according to the BFE website. “With aquaponics, the more authentic and natural it’s operated, the better the quality.”
Pester said students are getting a taste of what “real food” tastes like. He said a student at another school told him he doesn’t like tomatoes but when he tasted a grape tomato from an aquaponics farm, he became a fan.
Renaissance Charter students will be able to grow up to 14 tons of produce annually, Pester said. BFE will work with an after-school club to grow and sell cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce to parents, as well as to local restaurants.
An app is coming out soon that will allow parents to order and pay for produce and then pick it up the next day in the school’s car line.
Some of the proceeds return to the school and the rest is used for the upkeep of the farm. Aquaponics is a system of farming that grows plants and fish in linked systems. The waste from the fish feed naturally occurring bacteria that consume the ammonia from the fish. These nitrifying bacteria produce nitrate, which is the nectar the plants thrive on. The plants consume the nitrate, returning fresh water back to the fish.
The food produced requires no soil — just roots and water with a balanced filtration system and no pesticides.
“The seed-to-harvest concept helps our students understand how the entire life cycle and food chain work and can sustain itself if done properly,” Taylor said. “Students learn so many scientific principals in this process and get to enjoy the fruits – or actually the vegetables – of their labor through hands-on learning. We are very excited to have this living lab right here on our campus where students benefit in so many ways.”
“Today’s consumers demand clean, sustainable agriculture and our aquaponics farms fit that bill,” Pester said. “Our hyper-local approach allows the community to enjoy fresh pesticide-free produce grown right here in their backyard. We love working with students and seeing how thrilled they are when they see their hard work start to produce real food.”