Donald Bailey held the attention of an assorted group of students, teachers and the curious at Ivanna Eudora Kean’s Tilapia Aquaponics Farm Educational Workshop Friday, none more so than sophomore Clemon Lewis.
Bailey, a 30-year UVI research specialist, was one of the professionals invited to talk about raising fish and vegetable in tandem, which is a very short description of what aquaponics entails. Lewis said he had been at the workshop almost every day this summer beginning at 6 a.m. helping Kirk Lewis, IEK science teacher, and others work on the complicated plumbing.
Four big bright blue tanks containing tilapia – 100 in each tank – circle the filtering system in the middle of the shop. The fish are harvested every six weeks. More are being bred in a small room, call it a nursery, at the rear of the shop.
And behind these, the progeny of the symbiotic relationship, is a flourishing green garden, bursting with the life, the pride and joy of the project.
Clemon Lewis lead the group over to the lush garden, bent over to reveal a red pepper.
"Look, already one red one," he said with pride. The onlookers surrounded the two long white containers, filled with little holes, in which grow tomatoes, peppers, bibb and romaine lettuces, squash, Sorrell and other plants in various stages of development.
The gardens are rotated, instructor Lewis explained. "You see these are growing in four different panels. We rotate the crops. It’s easy to do, since they are light and they float."
Basically, aquaponics combines aquiculture and hydroponics in a symbiotic relationship that combines culture of food, fish and vegetables in re-circulating systems. The fish effluent provides nutrients for rapid plant growth, and the plants in turn purify the water, which is returned to the fish culture tanks in a continuous cycle, without harmful pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
In a moment of levity, during the indoor program, Bailey told his audience, "The fish go to the bathroom, and we make the most of it." The fish effluent feeds the plants.
The program was developed and refined at UVI, and the school has received international recognition for it.
The workshop was held to encourage the community to grow their own food in their own gardens. It was well-attended by individual community members, several seniors, and even by Addelita Cancryn’s Junior High School’s science class, led by environmental activist and teacher Anna Francis.
The workshop was hosted by the Virgin Island Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (VIEPSCoR), a territorial program funded by the National Science Foundation.
The program’s focus is on building the territory’s scientific capacity in order to address marine and environmental issues, particularly in the schools. Local program director Henry H. Smith shared information about the program.
Also partnering in the workshop is theVirgin Islands Network of Environmental Educators, a network of environmental educators. Audrey Penn, VINE member and program manager of the Friends of the National Park, was on hand Friday, seemingly in three places at once, explaining the IEK program, helping folks to understand the process.
Her energy appeared as boundless as her dedication to helping the territory in environmental issues. "Leave Paradise in its Place," is the theme of VINE’s current efforts to protect sea life. This workshop is right up her alley; an essential component of VINE is to provide teachers with science-based experiential learning workshops.
The program, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., left little to the imagination. All who paid attention should be equipped to at least start their own small garden. Everything from growing to energy to marketing was offered, with plenty of time for questions and answers.
Detailed advise on the nuts and bolts of an aquaponics was provided by Bailey, who explained the system, and Lewis who presented an overview of the IEK program, as well as Carlos Robles, UVI’s premier garden expert, without whose efforts the territory would know not nearly as much about gardening. Robles has lent his expertise to all the school gardens on St. Thomas, and he hosts the WTJX gardening series "Home Grown."
The wide-ranging agenda included a talk about energy issues in aquaponics, introducing the concept of alternative energy, as well as a presentation by Terri Brown, owner and creative director of MLB creative who talked to about something very basic – marketing the produce, how to get started.
Instructor Lewis said right now, they really didn’t have enough produce to supply anyone but the students and staff, but, he conceded, it is a growing concern.