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Innovation for the environment: American Academy teaching students to farm sustainably

The forward-thinking approach of one Academy in Florida is helping students to learn about sustainable food production, by introducing some of the most innovative technologies available in farming.

Agriculture teacher, Ray Cruze, works closely with co-teacher, Tim Bean, to head up the agriculture program at Roosevelt Academy in Lake Wales, Florida, to give students a holistic education in food production – using a commercial business model and always prioritizing the environment.

“We aim to give our students a good depth of knowledge in modern crop production, using sustainable practices that are better for the environment. We grow everything from niche vegetables, herbs, to flowers in a total of six commercial size greenhouses,” says Ray.

“One of the greenhouses uses aquaponics to grow cucumbers, heirloom tomatoes, leafy herbs and greens. It’s an innovative system, where fish provide the nutrients for the plants. We use a 10,000-gallon recirculating water system, including 4 1,000-gallon tanks containing Tilapia fish, and essentially use their excrement to provide water to the plants. This fall, with support from Aquasol International, we will be using water from this system, filtering it and using it to provide nutrients to our hydroponic crops grown in our coir grow bags on the farm,” he says.

Ray explains, aside from the aquaponic system, that all of the produce is grown in coir growbags, supplied by the producer, Botanicoir. This includes tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers, leafy greens, and a variety of culinary herbs. We teach students everything from preparation to propagation, maintenance, natural pest and disease control and harvesting, using the grow bags.

“We’ve grown produce in coir grow bags successfully since 2012, and each bag is used for three growing cycles. When the bags have reached the end of their use, the coir is incorporated into our potting soil mix for seed, herb and ornamental flower production. Nothing goes to waste here, and the grow bags fit beautifully into our environmentally-friendly philosophy,” says Ray.

The growing approach at Roosevelt Academy is organic-based, so no synthetic pesticides or fungicides are used, instead, natural methods of crop protection and beneficial insects are employed.

Irrigation water collection
Ray also has big plans for a new project with Haygrove, producer of polytunnels and growing equipment. “Haygrove is supporting our program, replacing our table tops for growing and will install a guttering system, so we can collect the irrigation water from the coir grow bags. This water, still enriched with nutrients, will be recovered in tanks and used to fertigate our nursery crops, contributing to more sustainable use of irrigation and nutrients. Eventually the ‘fish water’ will be added to this to make it even more environmentally friendly.

“Approximately 120 students go through this program each year and I like to think we are teaching them pioneering techniques and a thirst for knowledge and innovation to employ in their own working lives. Without the help and support of our customers and many agricultural businesses like Botanicoir, their U.S. distributor, Doublethumb Growing Solutions, and Haygrove, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. As an educator, and on behalf of my school and students, we are extremely grateful to them,” adds Ray.

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