Greenhouse grant plants seeds of opportunity

Courtesy photo. The AC greenhouse will use an aquaponic system that combines aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (the soil-less growing of plants) to grow fish and plants together in one integrated system similar to this one pictured here.

By GARRETT FRIEMEL, Ranger Reporter:

The seeds of change are growing at Amarillo College. Students soon will get hands-on experience using technology to grow fruits and vegetables to feed the needy, thanks to a $4.9 million U.S. department of education grant.

College officials now are finalizing plans to use the money to purchase equipment and build a state-of-the-art aquaponic greenhouse facility, called a conservatory.

The college received the Hispanic-Serving Institution–STEM Grant in September. It will allow AC to build the new greenhouse and develop new degree and certificate programs that lead to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.

“The greenhouse will allow the students to have hands-on research opportunities in a multitude of STEM related courses,” Dr. Claudie Biggers, biology department chair, said.

The 12,400 square foot building will have two labs and a prep room with a foyer, Biggers said. The conservatory will be built on the Washington Street campus, but the exact location is still being determined.

The facility will be similar to the Howard’s Greenhouse building located on South Washington Street. For nearly a year, the High Plains Food Bank has been using Howard’s Greenhouse to grow fresh food.

Justin Young, High Plains Food Bank greenhouse director, and Jimmy Heisler, Urban Farm Outreach director, have coordinated the Howard’s project.

This is not an average garden. It is set up with a series of aquaponic systems. Five to six rows of produce are pumped with water and fertilizer from two large fish tanks, filled with around 100 fish each. The water from the plants is then pumped back into the fish tank creating a symbiotic relationship. The fish provide the plants with fertilizer and nutrients and the plants provide the fish with fresh water.

“It really is amazing what the aquaponic system can do,” Young said.

Produce grown in the aquaponic system will grow almost twice as fast as well as emulating year-round food production, according to Heisler.

“Our focus is to produce food for the needy and the hungry,” Heisler said.

He said that Amarillo food banks cannot always rely on the produce grown in other states, and the local climate prevents year-round growing. The aquaponic system helps solve that problem. “Having a means of production in a local area can really benefit the community,” Heisler said.

AC’s greenhouse will increase production capacity. The food the students grow will be given to the High Plains Food bank and other people in need.

While helping others, the students who work in the conservatory will also help themselves, said Biggers. It will give them hands-on practice and skills in horticulture, biochemistry, environmental science and sustainable resources.

The biology department is now developing new degrees and certificates in those fields.

“My goal is to offer certificates that get jobs for students so that they can be successful in the future,” Biggers said.

She said she hopes the new degrees and certificates and the state-of-the-art greenhouse will allow students who never thought that getting an education was possible to earn their doctorates in a –literally–growing field.

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