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US: Georgia Southern University serves produce grown in its greenhouse

When students on the Armstrong campus of Georgia Southern University bite into a slice of pad thai on campus, they might be chomping on Thai basil freshly harvested in the university’s aquaponics program.

The Foram Sustainable Aquaponics Research Center (SARC), a joint venture between Georgia Southern University and the Foram Group Charitable Foundation, has been growing food for about 18 months in a 4,100-square-foot greenhouse where students can volunteer to plant seeds, clean the tanks and in the process learn the science of harvesting produce and fish from an agriculture system designed for sustainability.

But this year, Armstrong campus students can taste the herbs and vegetables harvested as SARC launches a farm-to-table initiative with Eagle Dining Services. Last week, Eagle received sweet basil, green onions, jalapeno peppers, lemon basil, Thai basil and Thai chilis, said Brent Feske, SARC director.

“Our goal is to make this a nationally recognized farm-to-table program. We want to expand and do this really well,” Feske said.

But for now, supplying the basil and peppers for pizza and pad thai is a start. “We’re not going to feed the whole campus. Right now we’re going to be doing little niche items,” Feske said. “For the basil, we probably gave 20 bundles of each.... We’re not bringing over a huge cartload. I hope we will. We may need an automobile. Right now, we carried it over by hand.”

By using the produce grown at SARC in food served on campus, Feske hopes to boost awareness of the program and the benefits of aquaponics. “It is without a doubt, hands down, the most environmentally sustainable way to produce food. There’s no runoff,” he said.

In aquaponics, fish are grown in the same water system used to produce vegetables. The fish waste serves as fertilizer for the plants, which in turn clean the water as they process the waste.

“My interest in this is first and foremost sourcing from the campus,” said Michael Morgan, director of dining services for Georgia Southern University’s Armstrong campus. ” (By) purchasing their items from them or providing additional support when we can, we are vicariously supporting campus research."

“My hope and intentions are as it takes off, because we are purchasing these items from them, they are able to fund the operation and staffing. Right now, they’re just supplying us with what they have, a limited availability, but we will be purchasing the (produce) in the future,” Morgan said.

Over time, as aquaponics becomes more competitively priced, demand for the produce is expected to grow.

“In 10 to 20 years, we’re going to see this become more mainstream,” Feske said.

SARC is growing tilapia in its tanks. “The fish are key to fertilizing and growing the plants, so we are a little more hesitant to be selling the fish,” Feske said. Because SARC hasn’t been selling the tilapia in its tanks, they are larger than most chefs would want for an entrée.

But SARC also has younger fish in its tanks now to replace the larger ones when they’re harvested.

“Our goal is to work on that turnover,” to be able to replace the fish more quickly, Feske said. “You don’t want to grow super big tilapia. When they get big, they grow slower.... We’re kind of beyond their quicker growth area.” SARC has focused on vegetables, which it has offered for sale to the university community, instead of fish because of its perishable nature.

But it hopes Eagle Dining Services can use its freshly harvested tilapia in its menu items this year, along with lettuce, Swiss chard and other greens.

Eagle Dining Services is developing menu items that reflect the ingredients available from SARC, but Morgan said he isn’t sure the foodservice operation will use the tilapia.

“My long-term goal is to get to where all produce items served through our food truck is entirely supported by the aquaponics program,” Morgan said. He’d like to incorporate the produce into other food operations, too, as the quantity becomes available.

While Feske aims for SARC to be economically sustainable eventually, it isn’t breaking even yet. It hasn’t started charging for the produce it supplies to Eagle Dining, Feske said.

“This was still just a donation to the campus to Eagle Dining to initiate our partnership so they can come back and support us,” Feske said.

By working with a partner, SARC is getting new awareness. Eagle Dining works with the campus marketing department, which periodically features dining services in campus news. In the dining hall, signage placed in front of menu items list ingredients and explain the aquaponics component, Morgan said.

SARC allows students to participate in the program as volunteers or researchers. About 15 students volunteer to do general upkeep at the aquaponics center, while others use the facility for art classes where students draw the different plant species. Students in kindergarten through high school visit SARC to learn about aquaponics, which Feske said doesn’t use pesticides. “I really want to get as many people involved as I can,” he said. “Students are the center of this.”

When the program will break even hasn’t been determined, but Feske said aquaponics has advantages.

The food output per foot is about four times that of conventional farming and it eliminates the carbon footprint associated with trucking produce across the country. But it comes with other costs.

“It’s quite costly to build a greenhouse, to build all these tanks, grow beds and pumps,” he said. It also requires electricity to keep the greenhouse from becoming too warm in the summer or too cool in the winter.

The Georgia Southern program received start-up funds of about $130,000 and the Foram Foundation has matched some contributions, Feske said.

“We bought the tanks. Then we had to build the whole center,” he said.

Now it is remodeling the facility to improve it. It plans to keep some of the original tanks and grow beds and compare the new system with the old.

“Then we can monitor which one works better,” he said.

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