By Meredith Hughes
A “controlled environment agriculture” project that reuses over 90 percent of its water, gives life to plants and fish, and runs on power from a solar array operates on the Santa Fe Community College (SFCC) campus, as part of the Trades and Advanced Technology Center.
It is the domain of Charlie Schultz, a well-traveled hydroponics and aqua-ponics expert, who, after earning two degrees at Virginia Tech, “found his calling” at the University of the Virgin Islands in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. For 14 years there he specialized in developing aquaponics using tilapia and a variety of plant crops, as well as other fish production systems.
Schultz focused on similar matters at Kentucky State and San Marcos, Texas, as well as in Alberta, Canada.
He finds it amusing that New Mexico Tech is still hesitant to have him as a speaker during its Organic Farming Conference, because the topic is water. But then, farmers devoted to soils may have to be wooed to the world of greenhouse water-recirculating growing.
“In 13 years we used and reused the same water,” he says. He and some of his crew had a “vendor” table at the recent conference, however, featuring healthy heads of romaine.
The setup at SFCC began in a small geodesic dome greenhouse, which is still planted in the parking lot and still in use. “Water-based agriculture as yet is not granted organic status, and there is major anti-water farming bias,” according to Schultz.
Today the newish 12,000 square foot greenhouse occupies one-quarter of an acre, and in February was 80 percent off grid. Schultz expected it to be totally off grid in a month. Eighty percent of the campus is powered by solar, and wind power already is supplying electricity.
Situated on 366 high desert acres, SFCC was among the first campuses in the nation to adopt a sustainability plan in tandem with their campus master design. “The plan, approved in 2009, called for the increase in the use of renewable energy to lower the college’s carbon footprint and provide strategic educational opportunities campus-wide.”
The Technology Center, built in 2011 to propel students into newly developing careers in the green economy, was awarded the highest level of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) points by the United States Green Building Council, a non-profit based in Washington, DC.
“We’re all about sustainability,” said Schultz, picking up handfuls of just-harvested turmeric roots. It’s all about growing plants, whether greens, herbs, tomatoes, or eggplant, along with ever-amiable tilapia, the major African staple for fish farming that does not taste “fishy.” Much of the food raised here goes to the college’s cafeteria.
Now people cannot live on lettuces alone, though fish and greens likely would do, although tilapia is among the least nutritious fish, far below salmon and sardines. Schultz believes farmed fish to be healthier than wild caught, incidentally, claiming that wild salmon has been tested and found replete with opioids, and also estrogen.
In any event, if you also grow cabbages, strawberries, cucumbers, cauliflower and squashes, though those are harder, and eat them, you can likely sustain your own life.
To be clear —hydroponics is defined as growing with water, no soil, whereas aquaponics means the same, plus fish. According to Grow Green Aquaponics, based in California, “An aquaponics system works by creating a nitrogen cycle. In this cycle, the three main elements, the fish, plants and bacteria, share the water. In the fish tank, fish produce waste. Microbes in the water convert fish waste into nutrients. Nutrients feed plants and vegetables which also clean the water. Plant roots clean the water in the grow beds before the water returns to the fish tank.”
Aquaponics uses no soil, and less water than plants grown in soil. Naturally there is no water runoff. The fish involved do need to be fed, but the system involves no fertilizers. Plants can be grown close together, and produce continuously, rain, shine or cold. There is no weeding to be done, and plants grow faster than they would outdoors in soil.
Schultz also does hydroponics, pointing out hugely tall cucumber vines growing out of what is known in the industry as “Dutch buckets.” Similarly, tomatoes. Dutch buckets also are called Bato buckets.
“For about $300, you can set up your own Dutch bucket system at home,” says Schultz, possibly even using those tall Home Depot buckets you may have too many of. Most hydroponic growers use a soil-free growing medium to anchor the plants, such as fiber, sand, perlite, coco fiber or stone.
The Tech team also grows spirulina, a blue-green algae super-food considered healthy for people.
All around the greenhouse and in an adjacent office, SFCC students are harvesting plants and rummaging around in growing medium, such as clay balls. It is compelling stuff you want to play with, like marbles. The place is so rich in edibles a visitor must restrain from chowing down on a random, tossed-aside heirloom tomato.
Schultz and his team welcome visitors, preferably small groups who can call to sign up for a tour of the greenhouse. Scout Troops, senior groups, Master Gardeners, 4Hers and others can ask a myriad of questions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 428-1205.
See also: howtoaquaponic.com