Tucked away in the Taylor Science Center’s greenhouse, a new aquaponics system brims with tilapia, lettuce, and other developing life. Built in 2019 by Hamilton’s Aquaponics Club, the system promotes on-campus food sustainability while also providing a space for students and faculty to learn about aquaponics. And with its accessibility, regular maintenance, and potential to expand with student interest, the system does just that.
Aquaponics, a method of raising crops and fish in an all-water, soilless environment, presented a fun challenge to Aquaponics Club co-founders Jonathan Dong ’21, Robbie Rioux ’21, Richard Soler ’20, and Stephen Wisser '20. According to Dong, the club started with the aim of creating “a sustainable farming practice and system on campus that [community] members could maintain.” With members representing a variety of disciplines, including chemistry, history, and government, the club teaches students about animal and plant biology and practicing aquaponics.
After building the aquaponics system, Dong and Rioux populated it first with tilapia and lettuce, two of the easiest and most efficient products to cultivate in water. The 400-gallon system includes a 100-gallon tilapia tank, tanks that break down tilapia waste, and tanks that contain the plants. Nutrients from the tilapia waste sustain the plant life, and club members feed the tilapia daily. (The club’s adviser, Supervisor of Introductory Laboratories in Biology and Lecturer in Environmental Studies Jason Townsend, feeds the fish during breaks.) The $7,000 system was funded through Student Assembly.
“The thought is that we grow the food and give it to someone on campus or in the Hamilton community,” Rioux said. The Aquaponics Club donated the first batch of lettuce to students living in the Woollcott Cooperative and the first tilapia harvest to a family from the Utica Refugee Center. Rioux said the club hopes to eventually have the tilapia served in Commons.
In addition to the initial tilapia and lettuce, the club is looking to raise and grow other animals and plants in the system. The effort to expand reflects student curiosity about how aquaponics works. “We got a ton of students on campus with their own questions about the system that they want answered,” Dong said. Club projects include researching which tilapia breed, vegetable types, and flower species that grow best with aquaponics.
Since its founding in 2018, the Aquaponics Club has come a long way in both bringing aquaponics to Hamilton and recruiting members to maintain and learn about the system. Both Dong and Rioux expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to design and continue the project. “We transformed the greenhouse into our own space, and that was a lot of fun,” Rioux said. “Hamilton’s [has] been very supportive of having us in there and letting us do what we need to, so that’s been pretty great to be able to do.”