Rising to the surface in a silvery, wriggling mass, 2,000 tilapia seemed to bring the water to a boil as they fought over the pellets spread on the water by Heidi Wood-Tucker, a fisheries biologist at the Cheyney University of Pennsylvania.
Moments before the dark green water was disturbed only by the gurgling of filters and the tanks, topped by a lawn of basil sprouts, seemed empty. But, the thousands of fish swimming just below the bubbles of the filter were very much alive, providing life to the basil plants above — all part of a natural cycle tweaked by man and called aquaponics, which is at the center of a growing science program at Cheyney.
Cheyney has the largest aquaponics program in the state, one lauded for its benefit to African-American students studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
“We can really inspire the next generation to go into the sciences,” Wood-Tucker said. “We have a huge need for students in STEM. Everybody is talking about from the President down. And, we at Cheyney are addressing that need.”
Using aquaponics, Cheyney and a private company called Herban Farms, is harvesting 6,000 basil plants a week, all of which are wrapped and sold to area supermarkets, adding a business component to the science program.
Ultimately, Steven Hughes, a biology professor and director of the Aquaculture and Research and Education Center at Cheyney, hopes to draw more students into the business side of the basil growing operation too.
“We would like to see in the long run more involvement,” he said.
It’s the multi-faceted nature of the program that makes it so important.
Even the part that is purely scientific requires thinking across a range of disciplines.
“Aquaculture is a broad based integrated science that brings in a lot of different concepts and rolls them all into a very practical application,” said Hughes.
Since 2004, about 50 students have studied as part of the program that is now being offered as a major.
School officials hope the program can continue to expand but growth is difficult as colleges and universities increasingly compete for funding and students.
Cheyney’s program operates on a budget of about $200,000 a year. Officials hope to find more funding — perhaps through the upcoming farm bill — and expand the program.
“It’s difficult for our science program to compete with the Drexels and the U. Penns because they have all the bells and whistles,” Wood-Tucker said.
The science behind the program is simple but impressive.
The tilapia provide the nutrients needed to grow the basil, which floats on the surface of the tanks in trays that allow its roots to absorb the water. The concentration of nutrients and the growing conditions in the 11,000 square-foot greenhouse allow harvests every 40 days. It would take about a year and two acres to grow a similar number of plants.
“We’re really increasing production,” Hughes said. “It’s a more intensive culture, the concentration of nutrients and better conditions day in and day out. We’re growing stuff in a month it would take you two and half months to grow out in the yard.”
According to Wood-Tucker, the program generates enthusiasm among younger people too. Students from local middle schools and high schools visit Cheyney for tours of the aquaponics facilities, which also include an attempt to grow freshwater mussels on a commercial scale and another project that uses saltwater shrimp in a process similar to one used with the tilapia.
“You really are using all the dynamics of biology,” explained Wood-Tucker. “There are a lot of different nuances that we have know — we have to know water quality, what the system is doing, how much water is flowing through the system. — it really takes agriculture to the next level.”
As important as the science and business knowledge imparted by the program are, the program provides other benefits too.
Many of Cheyney’s students, drawn primarily from the city, have little idea where their food actually comes from. Experiencing the cycle of nature gives students first-hand knowledge of agriculture and animal husbandry.
“This is critical to re-establishing that man/nature connection,” Hughes said.
It’s also a link to a traditional role played by many Black farmers and watermen.
“We have a history of doing things with this, but very few people realize it,” he said, pointing to Black oyster farmers in Delaware and Maryland and catfish farmers in the South. “This is another opportunity for people to work and to excel.”
The same link exists with farming, he adding, noting that while Cheyney is growing only basil, a number of other plants — most herbs, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, kale, peppers — could be grown using the same process and the cycle also increases fish production opening up enormous possibilities for the concept.
“This is science that feeds people. I’m really looking forward to point in time when we can increase diversity in this field. This is not an area where you have a lot of African Americans,” Hughes said. “This impacts African-American food supplies just as much as it does majority food supplies.”