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PSU students building greenhouse, aquaponics system for Cherokee high school, community

Pittsburg State University students Charlie Beetch, Erin Kruse, Aaron Mackey, and Wren Lowrey hope to complete a greenhouse and an aquaponics system in Cherokee by October.  

Mackey, a junior in construction management, would like for green construction to be part of his career. Lowrey, a junior in biology, is interested in the environment and wildlife.  

The planning for this project began when Beetch, a senior in integrated studies with an emphasis in sustainability, society, and resource management, and Kruse, a senior in political science and integrated studies with an emphasis in sustainability, society, and resource management, met with Live Well Crawford County which is an organization that helps create healthy lifestyle choices for area residents.  

“In July of last year, Erin and I were gathering information to create a model on impacts of locally produced food as many communities in the area are without a grocery store,” Beetch said. “We met with Brad Stroud and Matt O’Malley from Live Well Crawford County, and discovered the opportunity to apply for grant funding from Kansas Health Foundation. The project initialized and developed later from that meeting.” 

Kruse applied to the Kansas Health Foundation for a $25,000 grant which provided the financial capability to make the systems operable year-round.  

Beetch is interested in aquaponics and sustainability focused on food systems.  

“In our core classes of the Sustainability, Society, and Resource Management (SSRM) program, the resounding theme is meeting needs today without compromising future generation’s quality of life,” Beetch said. “Finding alternative ways to utilize resources from the environment, without impacting the air, land, and water that humans and wildlife require. All of our actions compound into something greater over time, and by having the mindset that can reduce impacts will be very important in the future. Locally produced sustainable agriculture is beneficial all around. Adapting to a greenhouse operation where the environment can be controlled, there is a lot of potential to make something special happen with a year-round growing season.” 

Kruse is applying the concepts taught in sustainability, society, and resource management to this project.  

“In my SSRM degree, we look at resource management, biological and social systems, the geography of resource scarcity patterns… things like that,” Kruse said. “The aquaponic system being implemented at SEHS (Southeast High School) is a closed-loop, energy- and resource-efficient method of growing fresh, local food. So really, this is just one of many solutions to environmental and social access problems we face in our communities.” 

SEHS in Cherokee is adding a new class in which students will be able to utilize the greenhouse and aquaponics system.  

“The students will learn about water quality and how to maintain appropriate pH and nitrogen levels that supports healthy fish, plants, and beneficial bacteria,” Beetch said. “As well as plant and fish biology, how hours of light affect plant production, integrated pest management since this is an insecticide and herbicide free application, how to record and interpret data collected from the monitoring equipment, and overall greenhouse operation. If a student wanted to start their own small farm after finishing high school, or continue to college to learn more, this is a great educational head start.”  

In addition to hands-on learning, Kruse hopes this project motivates students at SEHS at incite change in their communities.  

“For the students learning with the system in particular, I hope that this hands-on application of a sustainable food production model will get them excited about food systems and sustainability,” Kruse said. “Hopefully the multi-disciplinary nature of the project will also show students how they can be their own agents of change in the world even through non-traditional skillsets.”  

Residents of the Cherokee community will also benefit as Cherokee is considered a “food desert.”  

“This project will create a facility where the students can learn about aquaponics and utilize the method to grow their own nutritious food,” Beetch said. “After harvesting, they may take the food home, supply their cafeteria, or share it with other community members. Under normal conditions, this scale of aquaponics system has the capability to produce around 100 pounds of fish and 1000 heads of leafy greens annually. There is not a grocery store in Cherokee, but there are smaller farm markets in the area and a community garden that does provide fresh foods. A system like this increases the availability, and maybe even inspire others to build their own model as well. It is enjoyable to take care of the fish daily, and… their nutrient contributions make growing plants easy…”  

According to Kruse, there are many benefits for the students of SEHS and community   

“What’s cool about the project we chose is that it really has various uses, especially at the K-12 level,” Kruse said. “Not only will the system directly provide the school district with fresh, local food, but the system can also be used for all sorts of educational aspects: biology, horticulture, agricultural systems, (and) technology. It’s very multi-dimensional.”  

In addition to valuable experience gained from the project, Kruse has a personal interest in food systems.  

“I have a personal interest in food systems and creating avenues to provide fresh, local food to communities which need it most,” Kruse said. “This project is doing just that. So, in many ways, it’s a passion project for me as much as it is an extracurricular application of what I’m learning in my classes.”

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