Dr. Phillips High School National FFA Organization officers (l. to r.) Cynthia Fenelus, treasurer; Ashanti Jean, parliamentarian; and Sara Innocent, second vice president, display their award-winning exhibit at the Central Florida Fair.
Proudly hanging in the classroom of long-time agribusiness and natural resources teacher Alex Smith is a first-place ribbon. For the first time in 25 years of submitting exhibits to the Central Florida Fair, Dr. Phillips High School students took home the top prize.
The 2012 exhibit by students in the National FFA Organization, a leadership organization for agriscience students, highlighted four examples of producing vegetables. These included traditional gardening; raised bed vegetable gardening; a “veggie barrel,” which is a re-purposed 55-gallon drum that is self-watering; and an aquaponics display.
Bill Pindar of Bay Lakes, whose son, Zach, will graduate from DPHS next month, helped connect Smith and DPHS’s Agricultural Advisory Board, which is composed of current and former students, parents and businesses, including Fish2Food Aquaponics. Fish2Food is an Orlando company that provided
supplies and technical assistance for DPHS’s prize-winning exhibit.
Aquaponics technology, a concept less than 20 years old, is a cutting-edge hybrid of aquaculture (tilapia farming) and hydroponics (growing vegetables in a water system rather than dirt and without pesticides). Together, the sustainable growing system uses the reconditioned fish waste to fertilize the plants and vegetables in a closed-loop water reuse system, which returns clean water back to the fish tank and produces plentiful quantities of healthy, organic vegetables.The winning display included a portable 275-gallon, self-contained aquaponics system made from a re-purposed, bulk food-shipping container. It consisted of a 200-gallon tilapia fish tank on bottom and 75-gallon grow bed for vegetables on top.“Aquaculture provides a solution for growing in areas with little water or fertile land, and the produce is grown without pesticides,” said Dan Dolci, who, along with his wife, Victoria, co-owns Fish2Food. “Since plants are grown vertically and reuse water, and fertilizer is provided by the fish waste, cleansed by natural bacteria, the system is self-contained, and it is a more efficient use of water and space than traditional farming done in soil.”The students’ system is portable enough to fit on a small home patio.With more healthy produce grown locally, the need to transport produce over long distances is reduced, which lessens pollution and the use of gas in trucks.Aquaponics produces eight to 10 times as many vegetables in the same land space and uses less than 2 percent of the water and only one-tenth the energy of traditional farming. In addition, the food is healthier, as it is produced without the use of pesticides, and natural nutrients are not lost.Under the direction of Smith, DPHS has been a pioneer in teaching agricultural sciences. Students and FFA members have been enthusiastic about adding aquaponics to the campus, which already includes innovative programs in animal husbandry; two large greenhouses, one of which employs hydroponics; and horticulture.The campus also contains an aquaculture area, where tilapia are raised in tanks; and pens for animals, including goats, sheep, rabbits and chickens.For these urban students, many of whom had never seen a farm, the experience of hands-on horticulture — planting, preparing the ground, caring for the plants, and harvesting the vegetables — is a life-changing experience.Their classes and projects have helped introduce DPHS students to innovative and sustainable agriculture. The students were enthusiastic about aquaponics as a different way of farming, which could help provide food for the world’s population in the future in an environmentally sensitive way.For the students, who are well-aware of populations in the U.S. and around the world, aquaponics is one solution that could provide healthy, nutritious food in large quantities using less water, land area and energy, and without pesticides — solving many problems at once.“Students can learn about the cycles of life from working with animals and plants, and feel a sense of pride,” Bill said. “They are being educated on so many levels. The DPHS agriscience department is on the cutting edge and is a role model, which other schools can learn from.”Smith, a passionate teacher and adviser to DPHS’s FFA group, is on the FFA board of directors for the state of Florida and is a Florida-certified horticultural professional, with certification in aquaculture, as well. He believes those involved in agriculture are “stewards of the land,” and it is important to find solutions, including aquaponics, to help alleviate the problems of food and water shortages around the world.The innovative programs at DPHS help prepare students for a variety of careers in agriculture.“As we prepare students for the future, we must make sure we are giving them all the tools they will need to be competitive in the marketplace,” Smith said.The goal at DPHS is that aquaponics for education can become “edu-ponics.” If grant money is obtained, programs can be expanded and student opportunities increased.“It is our goal to become the showcase for other high schools across the state and for individuals within our community,” Smith said.
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