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Time for Tilapia: High School Tries Fish Farming in Its Greenhouse

  • Some of the 300 tiny immature tilapia wait to be released into the fish tank from a plastic bag where they were acclimating to their new home, January 4, 2013, at Waukesha West High School where special education teacher Joe Jenna has been very involved with others in setting up a Aquaponics operation in the schools mostly unused greenhouse. (Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT)

    Some of the 300 tiny immature tilapia wait to be released into the fish tank from a plastic bag where they were acclimating to their new home, January 4, 2013, at Waukesha West High School where special education teacher Joe Jenna has been very involved with others in setting up a Aquaponics operation in the schools mostly unused greenhouse. (Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT)

  • Peter Yost, from left, and Shawn Ristow assist Waukesha West student Jake Egger in releasing about 300 tiny tilapia into the fish tank for students to raise, January 4, 2013, in Waukesha, Wisconsin. (Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT)

    Peter Yost, from left, and Shawn Ristow assist Waukesha West student Jake Egger in releasing about 300 tiny tilapia into the fish tank for students to raise, January 4, 2013, in Waukesha, Wisconsin. (Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT)

  • Some of the 300 tiny immature tilapia wait to be released into the fish tank from a plastic bag where they were acclimating to their new home, January 4, 2013, at Waukesha West High School where special education teacher Joe Jenna has been very involved with others in setting up a Aquaponics operation in the schools mostly unused greenhouse. (Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT)
  • Peter Yost, from left, and Shawn Ristow assist Waukesha West student Jake Egger in releasing about 300 tiny tilapia into the fish tank for students to raise, January 4, 2013, in Waukesha, Wisconsin. (Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT)

Waukesha, Wis. — The high school greenhouse was built with the school in 1992. But it was never really used.

Teachers kept some plants there, but it was basically a storage room.

That all changed this month, when 300 tiny, 1- to 2-inch-long tilapia were ceremoniously dropped into a newly built 500-gallon tank in the renovated room at the back of Waukesha West High School.

If all goes well, those fish will grow to skillet-ready 11/2-pounders in nine to 12 months, and multilevel growing beds connected to the tank will produce successful crops of vegetables.

Aquaponics wasn’t something special education teacher Joe Jenna imagined himself doing someday. But as a gardening enthusiast, when approached with the idea by colleagues — who were inspired by what they’d seen at Milwaukee’s Growing Power community food campaign — he jumped on it. His zeal for the project was evident as he talked to a roomful of supporters before the filling of the tank.

“We don’t know exactly where all of this is going to go,” he said, “but we know we’ll have fun doing it, and the kids will learn a lot.”

Students like Kevin Baier already have learned quite a bit. A senior in the school’s engineering design and development class, Baier helped design the tank and research and select an automatic feeder for the fish. As an aquarium owner, Baier said he was excited to work on such a large-scale fish project.

The scale of this project is unusual in a high school, said Shawn Ristow with R&D AquaFarms in Oshkosh, Wis., the source of the tiny tilapia.

A greenhouse is an ideal environment for such a project, Ristow said, and tilapia are easy fish because they can tolerate warm water, and they’re more tolerant generally of varied water conditions — more than, say, trout.

Vegetables to be grown in the flooded beds will be up to the marketing students, Jenna said. They’ll be working up a plan to sell both the fish and produce.

Tomatoes, bell peppers, herbs, leafy greens are all possibilities — “whatever the market will support,” Jenna said.

Jenna’s special education students will help with the planting and harvesting, and biology and chemistry teachers can fashion lessons around the plant life and water chemistry.

Donations from community members and foundations, along with fundraisers, are financing the project.

Jenna has yet to purchase pumps for the tank, fish food purchases will be ongoing and he’s hoping to install a system to remotely monitor the pH and oxygen levels and other workings of the tank.

But Jenna’s vision extends beyond the classroom walls. What he really hopes is that a local restaurant will take an interest in the food produced by the project. The school has a license to sell the whole fish, but not to process it.

“I can’t imagine anything better than going to a Waukesha restaurant on a Friday night,” Jenna said, “and having a Waukesha West High School greenhouse meal. It’s so awesome to even think of that possibility.”