Aquaculture alternative

March 29th, 2017

By Amy Oberlin | KPC News - The Herald Repubican

A dozen high school students are learning by working in a greenhouse and fish-rearing station within SUN Distribution.

The first aquaculture alternative school of The Crossing School of Business and Entrepreneurship started in September at Solar Usage Now (SUN) Distribution, 7967 S. Wayne St., Hamilton, which specializes in solar energy products and sustainable solutions. The business’ owner, Thom Blake Sr., funded the infrastructure and initial operating expenses of the school, which is now financially self-sustaining.

Solar Usage Now started in 2006 as a division of OCH Manufacturing in Grabill, offering alternative energy ideas across North America. Working alongside his son, Robert, a Trine University graduate, Blake bought equipment from Joel Werner of Angola to grow fresh produce indoors, then hired Zac Martin, an expert in hydroponics and aquaculture. Martin teaches the aquaculture students, and said he thinks the effort has been “excellent.”

Working alternative

“Along the way I met Leann White and her husband, Scott. She was at a network meeting asking for help for troubled youth,” said Blake. “Through her, I came to know the The Crossing School and the founder, Rob Staley. After several discussions, we determined that this might be a good fit for a work-centered school.”

The Elkhart-based job training program is part of The Crossing Educational Center, an accredited, faith-based, Indiana high school. Its mission is to empower struggling students.

The Crossing currently has 28 facilities throughout the state and contracts with more than 57 public school corporations. DeKalb County Eastern Community School District in Butler is the parent district of the Hamilton aquaculture school, with the current students coming from Eastside Junior-Senior High School and DeKalb High School. The opportunity is available to all area school districts, said Martin.

“We became part of the Butler campus, where we have introduced students to our sustainable dreams,” said Blake. “We currently serve 12 outstanding young men and women who have become integrated into this business model that we hope will spread to other Crossing facilities across the state.”

Another aquaculture alternative school is being established in East Chicago, said Martin.

Positive advances

“These young men and women from the Butler campus can be very proud that they were the pioneers who helped launch a sustainable program that will bolster The Crossing school across the state of Indiana, helping literally hundreds of students, if not thousands of students, over the next several years,” said Blake. “This program is great for the students, but also for the community. The local Methodist church is now sending members in to find out more about the program and the students who run it. A warm cookie and a warm heart will only help to bolster what has been happening here at this facility.”

With a growth rate of 45 percent annually, The Crossing anticipates serving over 2,500 students during the 2015-16 school year and 5,000 by the conclusion of the 2017-18 school year at over 50 locations. It is affiliated with ITT Tech and can provide some dual credits for college as well as professional certificates.

Along with hands-on experience growing produce in a greenhouse and tending to tanks of tilapia, the local students learn business lessons from Martin. A Fremont High School graduate, Martin attended Central Michigan University, studying freshwater ecology. He holds a master of science degree in aquaculture and aquatic sciences and has worked for the Indiana Fish and Wildlife Service and the Steuben County Soil and Water Conservation District. He is now an aquaculture production specialist at SUN Distributions. Martin is the conservation project superintendent for Steuben County 4-H and vice chair of the SWCD Board of Supervisors.

On-the-job learning

Martin meets with his students every other day. They talk about how to succeed in business and work side-by-side filtering water, mixing nutrients, taming vines, planting and harvesting fresh vegetables. Students also clean fish tanks and monitor minnows’ development.

On the days they are not with Martin, they study at their home schools. Some have individualized education programs, said Martin, or do not mesh well in the high school social setting.

The students at the aquaculture school seem to be thriving. They are well-versed in their jobs and can explain entrepreneurship.

The program is loosely structured to be “totally student-driven,” said Martin. “A lot they learned as they went.”

They built two large, metal-framed greenhouses within the industrial walls of SUN Distribution. The greenhouses are equipped with lights and carbon dioxide burners that help little plants grow faster. The plants receive a nutrient mix — a math equation kept along with detailed data in log books.

“The rest of it you kind of spit ball until you get it right,” said senior Devilan McKean, who plans to graduate in April. McKean is charming and has a wide array of skills, which were augmented by his new knowledge of aquaculture.

The first tilapia minnows were hatched Jan. 19 from an initial stock of one male and four female adult fish.

“They keep their eggs in their mouths,” said McKean. When the minnows hatch, they are separated from their mother and reared in a separate tank. The complete process of breeding marketable fish takes around nine months.

Making green

The school has begun selling vegetables from the greenhouses. The produce is available to the public during SUN Distribution’s business hours, 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and can also be purchased at Nature’s Cornucopia in Angola.

“I will only eat this lettuce,” said McKean. He said the flavor is better, less bitter than most commercial lettuce. Other students agreed the greens are good; even better with a little salad dressing, said student Caleb Keen.

“Our lettuce is awesome,” said Breanna Wheaton. “We’ve got some real good butterhead.”

The vegetables can be purchased freshly picked — $2.50 for a single head of lettuce and $1 for a cucumber. They have around a three-week refrigerator life.

“We transplant a certain amount every day, and we harvest a certain amount every day,” said Martin.

McKean said he feels confident he could build a hydroponic vegetable-growing system himself.

“You can fit a lot more food in a lot smaller of an area than you can on a traditional farm,” McKean said.

Blake invited the public to try some fresh produce.

“My wife and I are very happy with what is happening here and are proud of the accomplishments of Mr. Martin and the students,” Blake said. “Our hats are off to the Butler area schools administration who saw fit to support the Crossing school. They made a strong partnership for the development of this program. These students are no longer wandering generalities, but meaningful specifics, thanks to the dreams and beliefs of Rob Staley and the support of the Butler school.”