More than a dozen West Salem High School Students crowded around an innocuous cardboard box outside the school greenhouse last Wednesday afternoon in quiet anticipation.

Inside the box, 100 pinky-length Tilapia swam in slow circles. West Salem’s first aquaponic gardening class could finally get out of the classroom and get some hands-on experience.

“I couldn’t believe all of them fit in there,” senior Nick Averbeck said. “I didn’t think they were going to be that small.”

By the end of the evening, the fish would be resting comfortably in four 110 gallon fish tanks that, within a few weeks, will begin producing fertilizer for hydroponically grown lettuce greens.

West Salem is the first school district in the county to offer an aquaponics course that uses fish to produce fertilizer for hydroponically grown fruits and vegetables. The school, however, isn’t the first district to put hydroponically grown veggies on student’s plates, which Bangor and Holmen been doing for years. West Salem is the first to introduce fish to the equation.

For Agriculture Teacher Kelly Reuckheim, the arrival of the fish signaled the official start of a program that had been under development for more than a year.

“It will take four to six weeks for the bacteria to build up and start producing nitrates,” Reuckheim said. “We will probably be planting right before or after Christmas.”

Reuckheim had hoped to introduce the fish to the school’s two aquaponic gardens earlier this year, but leaking pipes, lingering questions over the effects of chlorinated water on the fish and high ammonia levels delayed the start of the program.

Before any fish could be added to their respective tanks, they had to be acclimated first.

Reuckheim said if this isn’t done, any change in temperature, acidity, nutrient levels could cause the fish to go into shock and die.

He said the process of acclimating the fish is similar to introducing a pet fish to a new aquarium.

Junior Maddy Harr and her classmates, Joey Oldendorf, Averbeck and Sam McConaghy were tasked with ensuring the fish made a healthy transition.

While Oldendorf and McConaghy slowly added water from the aquaponics system to get the fish adjusted to the change in temperature, junior Maddy Harr, rotated an aerator between the two bags of fish.

For Harr, introducing the fish to the system was a big deal. A year earlier she’d helped put the system together as part of the greenhouse class. Freshman Sam McConaghy said the aquaponics course was a chance to learn about alternative approaches to farming.

“I’m a farmer, so I wanted to learn to grow something differently,” she said.

Averbeck said he’s excited to get the system up and running.

“I was expecting to get up and running with in the first two months,” he said. “We’re in the third month.”

With the two gardens operational, Reuckheim said students will begin working in teams of seven to keep the system running.

Each student will be responsible for maintaining one aspect of the system, whether that’s feeding or weighing the fish, harvesting the produce or monitoring water conditions. The positions are rotated through the group each week, so every student learns to run the entire system.

By the new year the first seeds should begin sprouting, and within a few weeks, the West Salem students will start to see the lettuce showing up in the salad bar during lunch.

According to Nutrition Director Kerri Feyen, the district still needs to find a state inspected the facility to process the fish before it can be served to students. Reuckheim said until that is worked out, full grown fish will be given to students and parents to process themselves. He said a fish fry isn’t out of the question either.

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Coulee Courier reporter

Tobias Mann is a reporter with the River Valley Media Group. He can be reached at tobias.mann@lee.net or at 608-791-8216.

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