- Associated Press - Sunday, January 19, 2014

MILLS, Wyo. (AP) - Students at Mills Elementary School are talking a lot about poop these days without bursting into a thousand giggles.

Poop, specifically fish poop, has taken on an air of seriousness, as students at Mills Elementary, with assistance from students at the alternative Star Lane Center in Casper, are creating an aquaponics system to grow plants inside the school’s four-year-old greenhouse. They plan to sell the food and fish bounties to the community.

On Friday, students gathered around JD Sawyer, president of Colorado Aquaponics, which educates the public on the systems and runs a system in Denver at the GrowHaus.

“Would we be eating the fish poop?” one child asked.

“That’s a good question,” Sawyer said. “No. Absolutely not. We have different ways to filter the poop. Another question I get is, does the food taste like fish? And it doesn’t because we keep the fish and plants separate from each other.”

Sawyer and his employees installed the aquaponics system at Mills Elementary. It has two containers: A 100-gallon plastic tank that will be filled with about 15 tilapia, and a 90-gallon plastic feeding trough that will grow salad greens, herbs and strawberries.

Fish urine and feces contain ammonia, which can be fatal to fish if tanks aren’t properly cleaned. In the aquaponics system, water is constantly pumped up to the plant trough above. The trough will be filled with light-weight silica rocks and worms, Sawyer said. The plant system is called hydroponic because there is no soil.

Once the water is in the plant trough, bacteria convert ammonia into nitrates, the primary source of nutrients for plants, Sawyer said. With nutrients, the plants will take root and grow. The continuous flow pump also returns water back to the fish tank, he said. Water doesn’t need to be refilled.

“This is an ecosystem,” Sawyer told the children.

At the GrowHaus in Denver, the aquaponics system creates about 1,500 pounds of fish a year and about 40,000 pounds of produce a year. The system at Mills Elementary will be more modest. No one knows yet exactly how many pounds of produce will grow.

Clareesa Zook, a board member of the Casper Community Greenhouse Project, can’t wait to take her first bite of the students’ food. The Greenhouse Project wants a community greenhouse and helped pay to bring Colorado Aquaponics to Mills.

The Greenhouse Project is about to take a survey of greenhouses in Casper and across the state. Projects at Natrona County High School and in Riverton are growing food, but there aren’t any restaurants in Casper that promise locally grown herbs, she said.

“I’m not aware of any greenhouses where you can go to purchase food,” Zook said.

With the Mills aquaponics food, people could eat locally grown strawberries in December. The value of locally grown food is that it provides jobs and money to the local community. Less gas is spent on transportation from far-flung places, Zook said.

“We live in a desert climate,” she said. “You’re using a tenth of the water of traditional farm production and producing three to four times as much produce.”

Tyler Kessel, a Mills third-grader, said his class has been learning about the nutritional values of different foods to prepare for the aquaponics system. But he is most thrilled about keeping fish at school.

“I’m excited to watch the fish,” he said.

As the aquaponics system gets going, problems may arise. Students will get to solve them. The business community has long asked educators to teach students to be problem-solvers, said Mills Elementary tutor Jennifer Leimback, a project organizer.

Aquaponics imparts students with lessons in science, engineering, math, agriculture, technology, chemistry, sustainability, business, marketing and construction, said Sawyer of Colorado Aquaponics, which has visited other schools to promote the systems.

“This is definitely really starting to take hold,” he said. “We’ve taken it to schools in our area. It’s perfect classroom material. Almost every subject is covered. It’s a little more exciting to have fish or plants than textbooks.”

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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