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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Some teenagers want a car; Tiffy Murrow wants to feed the world.
The Fort White High School junior has spent almost two years learning to farm fish, with help from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and her school’s agriculture adviser, Wayne Oelfke.
Murrow started with glass aquaria and tropical fish, then she graduated to a 750-gallon tank housed in an equipment building on the school campus. It holds 140 tilapia destined for a soup kitchen in nearby Lake City when they reach optimum size, about one pound.
But this project is about more than fish.
Soon, Murrow and collaborator Kaila Cheney, a FWHS sophomore, will begin growing vegetables on floating platforms in another part of the system, a shallow pool where water circulates. The crops may include cucumber, tomato, lettuce and basil. With roots dangling in the water, the plants will draw moisture and nutrients from the pool, reducing the need for fertilizer and helping maintain the ammonia and nitrogen levels tilapia need to stay healthy.
The technology is called aquaponics, a sustainable method for raising food where farmland is scarce. Increasingly common in Third World countries, aquaponics is still a novel concept to many Americans. But in Fort White, Murrow has plans to spread the word by holding open house events and encouraging others to investigate aquaponics as a possible project, hobby or business opportunity.
“We want to see if we can make a difference,” Murrow said. “This is a model showing how you can grow a large amount of food in a small amount of space. We want to set up the same kind of thing with fish ponds and incorporate it into Third World countries.”
That’s an ambitious goal, no doubt. But, as Oelfke points out, all of today’s successful agricultural technologies began as newfangled ideas in need of advocates.
“Someone needs to be proactive and apply it and make it work,” he said. “That’s what Tiffy’s doing. And once she makes up her mind to do something, it will happen. She’s persistent.”
Already, Murrow’s persistence has helped the project earn awards at state and national Future Farmers of America science competitions. She’s also won a $2,500 FFA research grant, which has funded most of the equipment and supplies needed for that 750-gallon system.
It all started in January 2011, when Murrow and her friend Julia O’Neail were enrolled in Oelfke’s “Foundation of Agriscience” class. Asked to develop and execute a project, the two settled on raising tropical fish and aquatic plants together, trying to find ideal stocking rates so that the plants’ nutrient uptake removed metabolic wastes produced by the fish and kept the water clean.
Oelfke recognized early on that water quality and fish medicine would be important facets of the project, so he reached out to Chuck Cichra, a professor with the UF/IFAS fisheries and aquatic sciences program in Gainesville, part of the School of Forest Resources and Conservation.
Cichra helped Murrow and O’Neail secure tanks and filtration equipment and taught them the basics of water chemistry, fish care, statistics and record-keeping. The project moved forward and so did Murrow’s vision. Soon, she was talking about bigger fish, bigger tanks and bigger goals.
As summer 2012 approached, O’Neail decided to spend her free time on other activities, and Cheney – a student with hydroponic vegetable production experience, who’d recently transferred to the school – volunteered to help with the project.
This past fall, Murrow and Cheney were enrolled in Oelfke’s agricultural mechanics class, and the aquaponics project accounted for most of their classwork. They built a sturdy wooden platform to hold the main tank, a biological filter that handles initial water treatment, and piping that moves the water around the system. They did virtually all the construction themselves, even learning to weld.
Both teens agree they’ve learned valuable skills from the project – besides welding, there’s persistence, ingenuity, leadership, communication and a suite of scientific knowledge and practical know-how.
Murrow hopes to pursue a career in nursing or veterinary medicine but wants to continue working in aquaponic production as a hobby. Cheney says her path may lead to a position in nursing or therapy.
Regardless of where they end up, both agree that this project has made them realize that few accomplishments are out of reach for those who work hard.
“Students have always been ready to do these things,” Oelfke said. “With encouragement and some guidance, these students can and will meet the challenges of the future.”
Other UF/IFAS personnel who assisted with the project include Dan Canfield, Amanda Croteau, Sharon Fitz-Coy, Bob Hochmuth, Carlos Martinez, Denise Petty and Geoff Wallat.
Writer: Tom Nordlie, 352-273-3567, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sources: Chuck Cichra, 352-273-3621, email@example.com
Wayne Oelfke, 352-317-6273, firstname.lastname@example.org
Fort White High School students Tiffy Murrow, left, and Kaila Cheney toss feed pellets into a 750-gallon tank where they raise tilapia at the school – Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012. The two also plan to grow vegetable crops in another part of the system, using recirculated water to provide moisture and nutrients. They are exploring a food-production strategy called aquaponics, where fish and plant crops are raised side by side. Researchers with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences have helped the pair with some of the technical challenges involved. University of Florida/IFAS photo by Marisol Amador