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Aquaponics and the "School to Table" Initiative at Steelton-Highspire School

This summer, The WheelHouse Program has partnered with Zoetic Global to bring Steelton-Highspire High School the “School to Table” initiative in which students grow food and raise fish in an aquaponics system and then sell their produce to local buyers.


Formerly known as Aggreco, Zoetic Global, a company which focuses on renewable energy and sustainable technology – especially through hydroelectric technology – has recently moved its main location to Harrisburg.


Ian Kanski of Zoetic states that since the company is so innovative in its approach, it faces a “limited talent pool” when hiring. Through the School to Table initiative, Zoetic is “investing in the future workforce.” The company took a hands-on approach to the project; members directly mentored students in the initiative and helped guide their studies.

“Everybody wins,” says Kanski.


Zoetic built a greenhouse behind the school in late spring, and  WheelHouse operates the site and coordinates the project with the school. “This is actually the largest school-affiliated aquaponics program in the country that we know of,” WheelHouse founder Bob Welsh says.


For those who have never encountered an aquaponic system before, it seems strange to keep fish tanks inside a greenhouse alongside plants, but the system’s success is just as impressive as its concept. The greenhouse contains rows of plants in neat rectangular troughs; far from traditional flower beds, however, these containers don’t even use soil. The troughs are filled with water, and a layer of hole-pocked foam floats atop. The plants’ roots are wrapped in rockwool (shredded compressed fiberglass) or a reusable GrowGrip plant holder and then inserted directly into the foam hole so the roots grow down into the water.


The plants don’t need soil because all of the nutrients come from the water. Pipes connect the fish tanks to the plant troughs. The fish waste fertilizes the plants, which in turn clean the water, and the water then circles back to the fish tanks.


The greenhouse sells some of the fish, too – especially the tilapia. The tanks always contain a variety of generations of fish so that when one group is old enough to harvest, plenty more are still growing and fertilizing the plants.


The system also supplies the fish with nutrients – namely, in the form of duckweed. This plant grows on the exposed water surfaces in the troughs, and the greenhouse contains separate water buckets specifically for the cultivation of duckweed.

The greenhouse’s bug control is bug-controlled. Dragonflies and non-stinging wasps reside inside, eating whatever pests would eat the plants. The greenhouse even contains a special dicot where non-threatening bugs live should the warrior bugs fail to find a meal; a soup-kitchen of sorts, this plant guarantees that the good bugs stay healthy.


The greenhouse does not even use artificial lights. Other educational aquaponics systems in the area – such as the one at Marshall Math Science Academy – do use growth lights (which, Welsh notes, is not a bad thing), but the Steelton-Highspire greenhouse wants to gather data based on a natural-light-only setting.


As all this evidence implies, this entire aquaponics system is completely self-contained. It’s a zero-discharge system, and while students currently compost a minimal amount of plant matter, Welsh says even this could be eliminated. Since the initiative has such a heavy emphasis on education, though, one of the benefits to the current system is that it teaches students how to compost.


Students not only take part in the agricultural side of the program, they also experience the marketing aspect. Many local restaurants specifically request certain crops; thus the greenhouse experiences a large demand before it even begins supplying. Natasha Garcia, a Steelton-Highspire student who works at the greenhouse, notes that most of the initiative’s crops start with a specific customer order.


Lately, market demand has forced the greenhouse to expand and innovate. Their largest-demanded item is arugula. Welsh says that greenhouse workers recently planted a much greater amount of the herb since the current demand so overwhelms their current supply. Also due to customer demand, the greenhouse plans to raise prawns. These shrimp will live in the bottom of the plant troughs.


In addition to the program providing students with hands-on experience, students also – as with all WheelHouse programs – have the opportunity to get college credit for their experiences through a dual-enrollment program with institutions such as Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. However the students plan to carve their academic and professional careers, the project has given them a unique opportunity with diverse possibilities.


Garcia and fellow student-workers Ilaynna Brown and Bryan Vanagaitis note how much pride the program has brought both the school and them personally. They’ve received valuable experience, which they can take into various careers, and they are eager to train the next generation of students to run the greenhouse.

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