It is possible to grow real food almost anywhere.

Gwen Boettcher believes that and is showing students in her Exploring Agriculture class at DeForest Area High School how it can be done with an aquaponics project that involves fish and lettuce.

“Really, this is urban agriculture, and we’re teaching kids that you can raise protein and healthy vegetables in cities,” said Boettcher. “That could anyplace, such as a basement or a high-rise. We’re teaching kids to grow their own food through small-scale farming.”

Solutions to the world’s food shortages require outside-the-box thinking, according to Boettcher. The program she’s involved in at the high school is certainly innovative.

Around 8 a.m. on Tuesday, June 4, Boettcher’s class harvested lettuce that’s been growing in their aquaponics laboratory, using scissors to cut it. This is the second batch of lettuce they’ve collected this year.

Next to the table full of lettuce in the lab is a tank of 60 tilapia fish swimming around in cold water. Their waste is used as fertilizer to help the lettuce grow.

Agriculture teacher Zeth Engel took out 24 fish an hour prior to the lettuce harvest and put them in the freezer. Then came time to filet the fish and prepare them for eating.

Brittany Vanderbilt’s Techniques of Food class has been learning how to cook, wash, dry and then fry fish. She said they also used a great new tartar sauce recipe to complement the fish.

Vanderbilt said that for the planning and prep work, there were around 40 kids in the room. She said very few students chose not to touch the fish. Those that didn’t either ran the fryers, made the tartar sauce or documented the work by filming it.

“I think it’s a nice collaboration with the agriculture classes,” said Vanderbilt.

During the school year, Boettcher’s class has been weighing fish at different times, taking 10 out at a time. A web camera broadcasts the activity in the fish tank to the nearby hallway.

As for the harvested lettuce, it was served at lunch that day for the entire high school.

Freshman Quinton Schnell is a student in Boettcher’s Exploring Agriculture class. He was surprised to learn how fast the lettuce could grow with the help of fish waste. Boettcher said it takes four to five weeks for a batch to come in. A total of 13 tubs, or 15 to 20 pounds, of lettuce was harvested.

Regarding the project as a whole, Schnell said, “I thought the lettuce part was a pretty cool system.” He also said knowing that fish are calmer when swimming in cold water was a good thing. That made taking them out for weigh-ins during the year easier.

Another aspect of the project that Schnell appreciated was learning that it’s possible to raise fish anywhere and “you can take the fish out and eat them whenever you want.”

This is the first year the project has been done in earnest. Boettcher said last year they had a trial run, raising 60 tilapia.

Vanderbilt has long been working to introduce her students to working with fish. She’s been teaching in DeForest for 11 years, and when she started, she taught an animal unit.

“There was beef, poultry and pork, but no talk of seafood,” Vanderbilt.

Both Vanderbilt and her husband like to fish. And they wanted to start teaching her students on how to prepare fish for meals. So, they would go and catch some themselves and refrigerate them. Now, they don’t have to.

“For these kids, maybe their family doesn’t fish a lot, so this exposes them to fish,” said Vanderbilt. “I would say less than 10 percent has ever touched a fish.”

Wisconsin boasts a strong fish fry heritage, and Vanderbilt wants her students to appreciate it.

For Boettcher, the project – funded with money raised following the death of one of her students, Clayton Underdahl – encompasses horticulture, animal science, veterinary science and the synthesis of all those aspects makes it a worthwhile project.

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