New Tech: Hydroponics and Fish Farming

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There’s a lot of growth going on in Ivy Tech Northeast’s agriculture program, and it’s happening in ways our farming ancestors could have scarcely imagined.

The college has built a new greenhouse on the southwest corner of The Steel Dynamics, Inc. Keith E. Busse Technology Center. As the semester began, agricultural program chair Kelli Kreider was eager to fill it.

A windowless germination room will be used for cold storage, experiments with controlled humidity and plants that need a dark or dormant cycle to do what they do best. Poinsettias, for example, need weeks of long, completely dark nights to produce those cheery red bracts for the holidays.

Fish will be raised in the aquaculture room, starting with tilapia. “They’re a very hardy fish, and this is a new process for all of us,” said Kreider.

Aquaculture, or fish farming, is becoming popular in Indiana, she said, though it’s not new. “We’re just figuring out how to do it in better ways.”

The greenhouse, which is greater than 3,000 square feet, will be devoted to hydroponic growing. Water from the fish tanks will be pumped into the greenhouse. That water, full of nutrients from the fish waste, becomes the medium in which the plants grow and puts the “hydro” in hydroponic. The fish themselves will be harvested when they are big enough, said Kreider, who likes “to use everything to its full potential.”

In addition to the fish, the crops grown–microgreens, tomatoes, strawberries and more–will support the college’s culinary program. A much smaller greenhouse elsewhere in the building will be kept for traditional soil gardening. Keeping the two growing methods separate is best for pest control and cleanliness, said Kreider.

Hydroponics is catching on, though the concept of growing crops without soil can be hard to explain to people who have worked with soil for decades, said Kreider, who herself comes from a farming family.

It’s ultimately about teaching self-sufficiency, she said. Like others, farmers are called upon to do more with less, and hydroponics opens up crop-growing possibilities in places not traditionally thought of as farming fields–in small areas, on concrete, on hotel rooftops, in buildings that once housed factories.

A disadvantage is that hand pollination is required in indoor settings where bees, birds and butterflies aren’t circulating. An advantage is that where you can’t expand out, you can often expand up with the right equipment: say, growing floor-to-ceiling tomatoes from PVC pipes.

Ivy Tech’s two-year agriculture program has 21 students on track to graduate this spring and is growing, said Kreider. The current students are eager to get the greenhouse up and running, and she expects the new focus on nontraditional growing methods to attract an even greater variety of new students.

Community cooking and gardening classes are in the works.

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