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Hilton College Researchers to Grow, Study Produce From New Aquaponics System 8/7/2013

System part of a grant-funded project with Houston Community College and Dayton ISD

HOUSTON—The University of Houston is home to an innovative farming system that will serve as a laboratory to study food safety. The Aquaponics system also will grow as much as 75 pounds of produce to be donated to area food pantries.

“Though the practice of using fish as a source of nitrogen to feed plants has been around for more than 30 years, primarily in Japan where farmland is a premium, Aquaponics is moving more and more into the U.S.,” said Jay Neal, assistant professor of food safety in the University of Houston Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management.

The UH Aquaponics system is built entirely in a 15 x 25 laboratory. A 600-gallon water tank is home to more than 200 tilapia. Water from the fish tank will flow through a PVC pipe over clay media into a floating garden supporting squash plants. From there the nutrient-rich water is drained into a second floating garden of lettuce and assorted herbs. The root systems clean the water, which is then filtered back into the tilapia tank.

“It's a completely closed system,” he said. “The water is completely replenished and recycled.”

The project is in collaboration with the agricultural department at the Houston Community College-Katy Campus.

Neal, whose research on food safety and contaminates has yielded best practices for small farms and farmers’ markets, will use the system to examine the prevalence of contaminates on produce from Aquaponics gardens compared with farmers’ markets and supermarkets produce.

“Certainly, there is bacteria everywhere, but we have found that with an Aquaponics system, the microbial load is very limited,” he said.

One growing cycle will yield approximately 75 pounds of produce—squash, lettuce and herbs. Neal says the harvest will be donated to area organizations to help their clients.

“We'd like to use this as a model to supplement food deserts in urban environments, places that are without steady sources of nutrition,” Neal said. “This is an immediate need and something we can do for our community.”

Taylor Wiley