Aquaponics facility could bring unique opportunity

Part One of a Two-Part Series on Innovative Education

Dan Whisler has another exciting challenge in front of him. Whisler is a chemistry teacher by day, father and husband in the evening, and national DownUnder sports cross country coach in Australia during the summer. His newest opportunity comes in the form of becoming the new project director of an aquaponics greenhouse facility in Hutchinson, pending receiving a large start-up grant.

The simplest definition of Aquaponics comes from theaquaponicsource.com. It says it is, “the marriage of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (the soil-less growing of plants) that grows fish and plants together in one integrated system.

Another example comes from the article “How Aquaponics Works A simplified overview.” The article states,  three crops must be kept alive in order for the process to work. “The fish, the plants, and the beneficial bacteria. These three living entities each rely on the other to live. The bacteria consume the fish waste keeping the water clean for the fish. In the process, the bacteria provide the plants with with a usable form of nutrients. In removing these nutrients through plant growth, the plants help to clean the water the fish live in.

Many people have worked to push the project forward. One of them being David Buckley.

“The gentleman who has been spearheading this effort is David Buckley,” Whisler said. “He is the director of the Community Agricultural site. C.A.S. is a community Ag garden, which is about 1/2 a mile away from the aquaponics greenhouse. He has followed this facility from the time it was being built, so it was kind of a partnership that was developing there already. When the facility lost its manager last November, it was more work than the owner could handle himself, so he temporarily shut down the facility. Right now, it’s simply sitting idle.”

Between Whisler and Buckley, a grant has been written in hopes of receiving enough funding to start using the facility again. The pair feel strongly about the site’s potential.

“Part of the strength of the large start-up grant application we’ve submitted it’s not a set of blueprints,” Whisler said. “The facility is already built, it was working perfectly and producing a lot of produce before it closed in November.”

The owner of the Wholesome Meadows farm Aquaponics facility is Gary Poulton.

“He’s been in the food industry all of his life,” Whisler said. “That was his career. He started the Hog Wild businesses. He wants people to understand what’s involved in not just making food, but making good food. He likes the proposal of where this could have an educational aspect.”

This is where both Sterling and Buhler’s school districts have come together.

“Both school boards have approved the project in terms of student participation,” Whisler said. My goal is to have the credentials to offer college credit for the students who would be working in the facility.” An encounter with Jay Scott, the state’s career and technical education director, helped move the project along.

“He was just wowed by the facility, and the proposal,” Whisler said. “He said, it was ‘everything we’re looking for from a standpoint of CTE and having the students make those real-world connections beyond the classroom.’”

Whisler noted some important dates coming up.

“We’re hoping to hear back on the grant by March 15th. We could hear back anytime though, as it was submitted three weeks ago,” Whisler said. “Then, on March 30th we could start enrolling students for next year.”

If the grant is passed, Whisler would have to leave the school.

“If this goes through there’s no way to do both,” Whisler said. “There’s no way I could be a classroom teacher in Sterling and run that facility at the same time. I’d be employed by the non-profit organization, specifically from the grant funds at least during the first eighteen months. For me, it would be going from nine and a half months of the school year to working year round.”