Santa Fe CC Uses Aquaponics to Feed the Community During Pandemic

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By Charlie Shultz

Like all schools across the nation, Santa Fe Community College (SFCC) was thrown into a tidal wave of confusion about how to move into a new paradigm of education, food production, and distribution by the coronavirus.

We teach one of the few Aquaponic accredited courses at the college level and we were in the middle of our Advanced Aquaponics semester. Two classes of students had started managing a diverse mix of balanced aquaponic systems on campus.

Students spent the weeks before Spring Break breaking down existing systems, gathering baseline data, and rebooting systems. Transplants had just gone in, then the virus began to spread and SFCC determined students could not return to campus for the remainder of the semester. Fortunately, most of our students had plenty of hands-on experience, then all class reverted instantly to an online format.

At the same time, the commercial hydroponic and aquaponic systems at SFCC were in full production. Food was being used in the campus cafeteria and the culinary department. As of late March, these outlets closed and there was no demand for our produce on campus. It has been 3 weeks since our shutdown and we have not stopped producing food. Currently, we are actually beginning to ramp up production for the needs of our community.

Our local mayor began an initiative to get food producers together as a collective and we are currently setting up centralized food distribution across Santa Fe for those in need. With so many out of work, and kids out of school, the demand for food resulted in the mayor approaching SFCC for help. Today was our first pickup from the city distribution program.

With information obtained from the GAP workshop at the 2019 AA conference, we have a good understanding of food safety procedures. We have developed strict protocols around our facility and have limited distancing to adhere to our government’s guidelines. We keep a 6 foot distance minimum between workers, limit to under 5 people at the facility at any one time, we always wear protective eyewear and gloves and we sanitize all surfaces, repeatedly throughout the day.

Early in the semester we had a student internship project develop into a marketing/food delivery project for the community. Twenty-five households per week were going to receive a free delivery of a fresh produce box, another 25 the following week and so on in exchange for survey input as a market study. Many of you know Nate Downey from the 2019 AA conference in Kentucky. We recently pleaded with our school president to let Nate continue his project through this unique time. He was granted permission to continue and his project of deliveries begins tomorrow! We all have our Food Handlers Certifications and will continue to keep our food safe for the public.

These are unique times and the education component certainly cannot be converted to all online. Our students need to go through fish and plant cycles from seed to harvest. Online content can be accomplished for the theory, but students cannot be proficient at aquaponics without getting to know the systems, and the biology, and manage those aspects daily.

Readers can follow our program updates on facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/sfccgreenhouse/ and more about Nate’s project can be found at https://www.lettuceetc.com/

Charlie Shultz is the Lead Faculty for Santa Fe Community College’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Program

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