Students Surmount Huge Odds to Build Aquaponics Garden

This greenhouse in Charlotte, NC looks ordinary from the outside. However, its interior hosts the very future of sustainable agriculture: a state-of-the-art aquaponics system. This cutting-edge community garden represents far more than advances in farming technology. In fact, 100 Garden’s eighth aquaponics system represents the culmination of Myers Park High School students’ dream that took root in the school community and grew into something incredible. This is the Mustang Project.

Mustang Project students explaining the workings of the aquaponics system

Mustang Project students explaining the workings of the aquaponics system (Photo Credit: Drea Photo Artistry)

It started with a seed grant. After earning $4,000 to put towards seed purchases, senior Audrey and a few friends began an on-campus community garden, drawing in students from various grades with different interests. Stewart, a senior, remembers hearing about the garden from her biology teacher, while junior Julianna just wanted to get more involved on campus. By January 2015, the growing group had a lofty goal: to implement an aquaponics system right on their school grounds (including four 450 gallon fish tanks, a vortex filter, a degassing system, and 224 square-foot floating raft growing channels). which can cost up to $10,000—a huge number for a group of high school students with limited resources. Fortunately, this number didn’t intimidate them. Instead, it fueled the fire in their fight. With guidance from 100 Gardens, the students set out to achieve their goal.

Mustang Project students giving a tour to teachers and community members

Mustang Project students giving a tour to teachers and community members  (Photo Credit: Drea Photo Artistry)

The students set out to meet their goal of $7,000 in just a month, asking for donations from family, friends, and big corporate sponsors. 100 Gardens provided 3-D modules of aquaponics systems so that potential sponsors could gain a better understanding of the project. Donations rolled in quickly during the first week but then stopped. The students didn’t take this plateau in fundraising as a failure. They instead set up meetings with corporations. Myers Park senior Klaus remembers the enthusiastic atmosphere during their meeting with Duke Energy. When the company offered financial support, he and his classmates were thrilled. “That’s when I really thought we might be able to do this,” Klaus explained.

Mustang Project students putting the final touched on the aquaponics system before the ribbon cutting. (Photo Credit: Drea Photo Artistry)

Mustang Project students putting the final touched on the aquaponics system before the ribbon cutting. (Photo Credit: Drea Photo Artistry)

By the end of the month, the students had raised $20,000—more than double what they had hoped to earn. It was time to bring the community garden to life. The group spent weekends designing and constructing the gardens, thanks to tool and soil donations from Black Hawk Hardware and Home Depot as well as help from the greater Charlotte community. The Street Art Club created two murals to put behind the raised beds while art classes made paintings to string from wires around the gardens as the finishing touch on April 20, 2015. The aquaponics system—built by Sam Fleming and Monty Thompson of 100 Gardens—would soon follow in August.

Myers Park greenhouse before construction of aquaponics system (Photo Credit: 100 Gardens)

Myers Park greenhouse before construction of aquaponics system (Photo Credit: 100 Gardens)

At the opening ceremony, Myers Park students and The Mustang Project sponsors mingled, listened to speakers, and enjoyed the new addition to campus. Klaus felt particularly proud, saying, “ People told us there was no way we could raise that money, and we proved them wrong. We felt thankful for all of the support we received.”

Today, seventy percent of the harvest goes towards meals for students who qualify for free/reduced lunch. In addition, The Mustang Project is influencing the school’s curriculum by offering science students hands-on experience with a man-made ecosystem as well as inspiring paintings and poetry for art classes. Looking forward, the aquaponics system will play a key role in students understanding the future of sustainable food.

Midway through construction of the aquaponics system (Photo Credit: 100 Gardens)

Midway through construction of the aquaponics system (Photo Credit: 100 Gardens)

The group hopes that they can get even more of the community involved, starting with the adjacent Selwyn Elementary School. “You don’t have to love gardening to get involved,” Klaus says, “but you will see how meaningful and important the Mustang Project is if you do decide to donate or get hands-on.”

The Mustang Project proves that a seemingly impossible dream can come true when passion and hard work intersect. Luckily for Myers Park, the students behind the Mustang Project and the experts at 100 Gardens did just that, changing the school one plant at a time.

 

Haley Weaver

 

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