(TNS) -- Students at an Oceanside school are getting a taste of high-tech agriculture through a school farm that includes plants grown without soil, or fertilized by fish.
At Palmquist Elementary School, kids are learning how to germinate plants, manage irrigation and use state-of-the-art farming systems. And they’re producing food for their own cafeteria and local restaurants in the process.
In the school greenhouse, Swiss chard, cilantro, strawberries and watercress grow in hydroponic systems that produce leafy greens in tubes or in stacked towers, using less water and space than conventional farming methods. Tearing off a leaf of watercress last week, student Keilah Goodwin noted that it tasted peppery.
“I think it’s a pretty interesting way of planting,” said fifth-grader Devin Stadyx, 11, while working on a row of hydroponically grown chard. “You might want to know that none of this is dirt. It’s rocks or water.”
Outside, an interconnected system of fish barrels and planters — a model called aquaponics — recycles water and nutrients. Orange and white Koi swim in water that’s pumped into planters, where fish waste fertilizes the vegetables. The plants, in turn, filter the water before it’s pumped back to the fish.
“The plants help the fish,” said fifth grader Aiden Gardiner, 11. “It’s kind of like your brain and heart. They work together.”
The system relies on the sun to run, making it even more efficient, said fifth grader Benjamen Davis, 11.
“The aquaponics is one of the best because it gets solar panels to run it,” he said.
Elsewhere on the site, corn grows in traditional rows, fruit trees blossom and giant beats push up from the ground. Fuzzy caterpillars climb on purple and yellow blooms in the butterfly garden. And red worms wriggle through recycled paper and vegetable scraps, where they provide useful compost and regular entertainment for the kids who manage the vermiculture bin.
The farm grew out of a school project about eight years ago, said farm manager Mark Wagner, who formerly taught third grade at the campus. As part a unit on Native Americans he assigned students to grow “the three sisters” cultivated by early Californians: beans, corn and squash.
At the time, he said, the patch of land “was just a run-down overgrown field with some fruit trees.”
Wagner, his students and their families added nearly 50 raised beds, 50 fruit trees, drip irrigation and a greenhouse. They installed the hydroponics systems, and hooked up the aquaponics tanks. Wagner became a half-time agriculture teacher, and was eventually appointed to a full-time position serving Palmquist and two other sites in Oceanside Unified School District. And the farm, with its abundant plantings and big, round, covered table, became an outdoor classroom. It’s also a place where each kid can find a niche.
“This is my favorite spot,” said fourth grader Laya Morgan, 9, leaning against a fig tree. “When I was in second grade I came here for the after-school program, and after we worked in it Mr. Wagner let us climb it.”
For Matthew Henderson, the sprinklers and their control panel are particularly fascinating.
“I’m a kid who always likes engineering,” he said. “That’s why I chose high-tech farming.”
The farm costs about $15,000 per year to run, but covers about two-thirds of its own costs, bringing in about $800 to $1,000 per month from produce that it sells to the school nutrition program and local eateries, Wagner said. Its customers include the Local Tap House, Wrench and Rodent Seabasstropub, and Privateer Coal Fire Pizza in Oceanside, and Belching Beaver Brewery in Vista.
“It’s been profitable for us, good for the district and good for the kids,” Wagner said. “Most importantly the kids love it and their nutrition has improved.”
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