Going with the flow: Williams students establish aquaponic gardening system

Williams School students Oaklea Elfström, right, and Amy Burzin, left, both 16, test the chemical levels of water from a fish tank, housing 18 tilapia that they are raising inside a geodesic dome at Elfstrom's East Haddam home on June 6.
Williams School students Oaklea Elfström, right, and Amy Burzin, left, both 16, test the chemical levels of water from a fish tank, housing 18 tilapia that they are raising inside a geodesic dome at Elfstrom's East Haddam home on June 6.

Under a geodosic dome in East Haddam, fish and plants are enjoying a symbiotic relationship.

Both fish and flora reside in an aquaponic garden designed and executed by Oaklea Elfström of East Haddam and Amy Burzin of Ivoryton. The dome sits on the Elfströms' property.

Elfström and Burzin have been friends since seventh grade and just finished their sophomore year at The Williams School in New London. Along with their advisor, chemistry teacher Rachel Thomas-Shapiro, they came up with an independent study project that brought together the ideas of co-evolution and symbiotic relationships with aquaponics. They gave a presentation on their aquaponic garden at Williams on Earth Day.

"It has certainly been a delight working with two bright, motivated, and socially and environmentally conscious young women," Thomas-Shapiro says. "It has been exciting tracking the pitfalls and ultimate successes they have had with their aquaponics system."

It was a book that jump-started the project. Oaklea's father, Bruce Elfström, who had been a science teacher at Williams, gave her the book "Aquaponic Gardening" by Sylvia Bernstein.

"I read it in a night, the topic was so interesting to me," Oaklea Elfström says. "Amy and I are both really interested in biology and sustainability and this is a form of sustainable agriculture that combines hydroponics and aquaculture - that cultivates plants and fish together in a (closed), re-circulating, self-sufficient system. The fish provide nutrients for the plants and the plants filter the water for the fish by removing nitrogen and fish waste."

Burzin read the book as well, and the girls gleaned more information about aquaponics from YouTube videos and the online blogging community - they learned the practice is very popular in Australia.

Burzin explains that the system starts by circulating water.

"We have to have bacteria in our system so the plants can convert the ammonia made by the fish into nitrogen compounds that are not harmful to the fish," she explains.

They point out that they use clay media in the grow beds instead of dirt because water is constantly taken in and out of the beds.

The mechanics, Elfström says, essentially consist of "a pump in the fish tank that pumps water into the grow beds and then when the water reaches a certain level, siphons that work like a toilet pull the water from the grow beds back into the fish tank."

During the winter, the system uses electric heating, provided by solar energy generated from the house.

Currently, 18 tilapia live in the system; the young women acquired the fish from an aquaculture school in Bridgeport.

"We have to use fresh-water fish, and tilapia are very hardy so they can handle fluctuations in temperature and chemical levels," Burzin notes.

Elfström and Burzin are so passionate about the results they've been getting that they've made grand plans for where the project may lead.

"The amount of food you can get from this is ridiculous," Burzin says. "Both of our families ate kale for months that we planted in the winter - it's such a hearty crop."

Elfström and Burzin point out that four types of tomatoes they planted in May have grown from 7 inches to over 5 feet tall in just over a month and have already produced large green tomatoes. The cherry tomato plants are already bearing ripe fruit.

"It's not only a green source of food - all-natural, all-organic - but it also teaches you chemistry, biology and sustainability," Elfström says, "and we can even think about donating food we produce to soup kitchens and bringing the whole system to a third-world country so that they can have an easy, healthy source of food year round that uses a fraction of the water used in a regular garden or on a farm."

"We're trying to figure out a way to establish a system at the school. We're thinking of a shipping container with a greenhouse built on top," Burzin adds. "We're working with Mr. (Mark) Fader, the head master, and Ms. Thomas-Shapiro to see if we can design a system and integrate it into the curriculum."

Thomas-Shapiro is hopeful that they will be able to set up a system as a supplemental hands-on learning platform as well as a way to provide produce for the school and a local food pantry.

"The planning process will most likely begin as early as this fall," she says, "but the implementation will take more time, as we are hoping to get grants and donations to help make this project a reality."

"You could build this on top of a building in New York City and provide food for an entire block," Elfström says.

But in the meantime, and a bit less ambitious, since they've got the fish and are growing all the ingredients needed for salsa, Elfström and Burzin can't wait until everything is ripe so they can whip up some fresh fish tacos.


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