Fishes, plants and the circle of life

The director of the Española YMCA teenage center, Ben Sandoval, shows how the closed-loop aquaponics system works. (Glen Rosales / For the Journal)

In less than a week, seeds of lettuce, basil and cilantro planted by a group of local students at the Española YMCA Teen Center in a fledgling aquaponics system had already grown to a height of two inches or more.

“I was actually really surprised, considering how much they’ve grown in such a short space of time,” said Janessa Sandoval, a seventh grade student at Mesa Vista Middle High School. “Normally you would expect, okay, we planted them, wait a few weeks and see if they even started to grow. When they started to grow in a few days, it was surprising. It’s crazy to think that all of this happened just because of certain fish.

According to the theaquaponicsource.com website, “Aquaponics puts fish to work. It turns out that the work of these fish (eating and producing waste) is the perfect fertilizer for growing plants.

The water circulates through the aquarium and then into the grow beds, where it is filtered through the growing plants. Then it returns clean to the aquarium.

“It’s magical in a way, what’s going on here,” said center director Ben Sandoval, who is the original idea for the project. “It’s a circle of life. A confined ecosystem.

The seed for the project was planted about five years ago when Sandoval visited a large-scale aquaponics facility while on vacation in Hawaii.

Española YMCA Youth Center members Janessa Sandoval, left, Eliseo Delgado, center, and Samuel Elijah Martinez discuss how quickly the plants grew in less than a week. (Glen Rosales / For the Journal)

“They were using tilapia to make the aquaponics work,” he said. “It was downright amazing and I was like, ‘How can I do this on a small scale and teach these kids?’ I have been working in my mind for five years. The delay made me a little afraid to do so. I didn’t think I had the skills to do it without the intervention of a specialist.

Over the next few years, Sandoval watched videos on the Internet, but still did not come back satisfied.

“Everyone does it differently,” he said. “You can’t get 10 people to tell you the same thing. “

But, after a recent visit to a friend in Abiquiú who had a small-scale aquaponics facility, Sandoval was excited.

“I just had to dive in and say, ‘Let’s do this,’” he said.

Using a spare aquarium that was stored at the YMCA, the project began with feeding goldfish.

“We wanted to grow good bacteria and establish the system with measurable bacteria to start with,” he said. “If you start too early without bacteria, it’s more difficult. When you track the data, if you don’t have anything to start with because it’s chlorinated water, we didn’t want it. We wanted to start with something that we could actually have that was measurable. “

He recruited several YMCA members interested in the project.

“Everything is fine,” said Samuel Elijah Martinez, a freshman at Española Valley High School. “We can broaden our thinking to learn new things. “

They formed a class and the students began to assemble the PVC piping that circulated the water and assemble the wooden frame. Then they prepared the clay pebbles which help in the filtering and growing process.

“We all did it as a group,” said Jordan Hoover, sixth grade student at James H. Rodriguez Elementary School. “We built the light, then we built the frame, and got a bucket and washed the clay pebbles. And we put them in our little container in the grow bed, and we planted our things. I love plants and I love fish, and I love projects. It was very fun.”

It took about $ 130 in materials to start the whole operation, Sandoval said, plus maybe 25 to 30 hours of sweat capital.

“But, now I don’t even feel like I spent those hours (on it) because we have plants growing,” he said. “It’s amazing, and it’s amazing them too.”

The students smiled as they looked at their manual work and healthy shoots.

Students at the Española YMCA teenage center grow cilantro, lettuce and basil using a closed aquaponics system. (Glen Rosales / For the Journal)

“I think it was pretty cool,” said Eliseo Delgado, an eighth-grader at McCurdy Charter School. “I’ve seen a lot of people on social media do it. When I first saw this course I thought it was just about growing plants with fish but when I started to think about it I thought it was something that I could possibly use with my children.

Seeing the plants actually grow made the process quite interesting, he said.

“Earlier, before I got here, my friends texted the photos to me and it was kinda cool because I was like, ‘How fast have these plants grown all week long? -end? “

Augustine Marquez, a sixth-grade student at James H. Rodriguez, said the idea for the project was interesting because he already had a few fish.

“The main reason I wanted to learn is that we have two fish at home, and I wanted to learn how to use fish water to grow plants and learn how the fish cycle works around plants. and fish water, ”he said.

The idea of ​​what they’re doing seemed a little strange at first, but Janessa Sandoval said that’s what makes it intriguing.

“I have always liked anything to do with science,” she said. “I had never heard of aquaponics, but when my father told me about it, I was immediately interested. It is this idea of ​​opportunities and experiences that drives me to participate in courses like this.

About Charles Holmes

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