Student Sustainability Association launches aquaponics facility


by Hunter Simonson

The MSUM Student Sustainability Association is working on an exciting new project this year. The SSA, Green Dragons and the Sustainability Department have been particularly active, with a host of projects including the removal of trashcans in classrooms, the installation of more efficient light bulbs and water bottle refilling stations. However, not all of their initiatives are as visible as these. The SSA is soon to launch an aquaponics lab on the roof of Hagen Hall.

Senior physics major and former SSA president Ben LeMay has spent the last year doing research on how to properly execute an aquaponics lab.

“Its different from hydroponics. With hydroponics you just have plants growing in water that you add nutrients to. Aquaponics is a system where the plants grow in troughs, generally in a substrate like lava rocks, and then you have fish in the water,” LeMay said.

Including fish into the equation adds a level of difficulty to the project. A previous attempt at cultivating a population of fish ended in failure. This time, they think they can pull it off.

An aquaponics lab is sustainable in that after the system is set up, nothing needs to be added to keep the plants and fish healthy and productive.

“You feed the fish, the fish produce waste, waste is then pumped into the plant system, the plants act as a natural filter for that water, they take up the nutrients produced by the fish, then we clean the water and pump it back into the fish”, LeMay said.

Senior Liz Overbo has been with the SSA since it started in January  2014.

“We were encouraged to organize a club by Denis Jacobs, who is a retired physics professor,” Overbo said. “He was a big part of the start up of the sustainability program”.

She said the SSA was founded as a way to start a conversation among sustainability majors. Overbo said she thinks the most challenging part of the aquaponics project  is getting started.

“Luckily, Ben has done a lot of aquaponics research, so we have a lot of knowledge when it comes to the entire process,” she said. “Other than feeding the fish, it is a system that needs little maintenance after set-up”.

The SSA is comprised of students from a variety of different academic backgrounds, from biology and sustainability to physics and chemistry. SSA’s advisor, Steve Lindaas, is head of the physics department. As a result, every floor of Hagen has a role in making these sustainable initiatives work.

“The biology department was nice enough to let us use a section of the greenhouse,” LeMay said.

The space is 16-feet-by-20-feet, and rests on Hagen’s roof. Its greenhouses are brimming with life and crowded with construction materials, evidence of it being host to  many projects in the works.

As winter quickly approaches, the SSA is facing several challenges in keeping its aquaponics lab thriving.

“Now that we have permission to use that space, there are a couple things we need to sort out,” LeMay said. “There’s a temperature fluctuation issue that we should be able to fix, but we’ll be working on that.”

The next step in launching the aquaponics lab is securing funding. They first went to the Sustainable Campus Initiative Committee, the student group in charge of distributing funds associated with MSUM’s green fee. The green fee is the $5-per-semester expenditure added to every student’s tuition for projects related to making campus more sustainable. The SCIC generates, according to the website, approximately $40,000 every year through the green fee. In the meantime, after filing the forms to qualify for SCIC support, the SSA is looking to the Dille Grant for the necessary funding.

The Dille Grant, according to its website, awards funding anywhere from $200 to $2,000 for student or faculty-led initiatives that “demonstrate innovation, uniqueness, and a commitment to improved educational experiences for MSU Moorhead students.” LeMay is confident the SSA’s aquaponics project fits these criteria.

“After we secure funding from them, we can begin construction,” he said. “Anyone can help out.

“Once the system’s constructed and we have our plants and fish, we can grow anything from kale and herbs to produce like tomatoes and cabbage — really whatever the group wants to grow. Depending on how much we produce … we could probably sell them,” LeMay said.

After the lab is assembled, assuming it sees success and productivity, students next spring may be able to take home and enjoy the fruits of the SSA’s labor.

Overbo said the SSA is also looking into a “real food” movement, worm composting, attending the Climate Adaptation Conference hosted by the University of Minnesota and bringing in speakers.

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