Driving to Naukati today to meet Colter Barnes, the principal of Naukati Schools, I wasn’t sure of what to expect. I had contacted Southeast Island School District a couple of weeks ago because I knew that they were operating a hydroponic greenhouse with amazing success in Thorne Bay. I arrived in Naukati to a typical Southeast Alaskan day, light rain with a smattering of sunshine and a soft breeze.
I met Mr. Barnes in a class room that also shares it’s time as the school’s modest library as well as Mr. Barnes’ office when he visits (He is the principle of several other schools on Prince Of Wales Island through the Southeast Island School District). A tall man with a beard that humbles my own we made our introductions quickly and we commenced with the tour.
The first thing that caught my eye as I entered was the long table of lettuce that ran down the center of the greenhouse. Full and leafy, vibrant green heads of lettuce, growing in the still chilly month of March! And along the left wall of the greenhouse was chard and mustard greens, one impressive specimen was nearly two feet tall. Needless to say, I was quite impressed, and grew even more impressed as Mr. Barnes began to fill me in on what this humble looking greenhouse was doing.
Firstly Mr. Barnes explained that the greenhouse had only been in operation since September of 2015, and in that short period of time the students, staff, and volunteers in Naukati had already harvested 507 heads of lettuce and 10 bunches of bok choi. This lettuce Mr. Barnes went on to explain was utilized in the school lunch menu to provide the students with a fresh salad bar every day, not to mention that surplus was sold to members of the community, and even traded for chicken eggs to another local school.
As I processed this information Mr. Barnes continued with the tour, showing me the wicking tables, specially designed tables that utilize a light porous media to allow taller produce such as the mustard greens and tomatoes some substance to grow in.Then he led me to the second wicking table where I was shown seedlings just beginning to sprout. This second wicking table Mr. Barnes explained would be used for rooting vegetables such as radishes, carrots, and turnips.
The output from this little 30’x40’ operation was already impressive, then Mr. Barnes explained that the system used in Naukati was not a hydroponics system. A hydroponic system is a highly productive system that utilizes nutrient loaded water as a growth medium instead of standard soil. The issue he explained is that the water must be monitored because there is a point where the plants simply won’t absorb any additional nutrients from the water. This results in increased levels of nutrients and the water (roughly 1,300 gallons) needs to be changed every three months.The Naukati system on the other hand is what he called an Aquaponics system, a system of living water.
An aquaponics system utilizes a system that closely resembles an enclosed ecosystem.
It begins with fish. The fish eat and as they eat they excrete. The fish waste and any excess food breaks down into ammonia, which collects at the bottom of the fish pond. Fish can’t live in ammonia, so this needs to go somewhere, and so the water at the bottom of the fish pond is pumped out of the pond and into the grow tables where the ammonia is broken down into nitrites, which are then broken into nitrates, which feed the plants. The ammonia free water is reintroduced into the fish pond, and the cycle continues. An enclosed, sustainable growth system, the water doesn’t need to be changed, and with regular monitoring the only thing that needs to be added is fish food for the fish.
Beyond this Mr. Barnes explained there was little else remarkable about the system. The grow tables had LED growth lights installed to extend the season, but he commented that they weren’t vital. Another feature of the greenhouse was that it was heated, and Mr. Barnes was pleased to declare that they were installing a wood boiler system to heat the school, staff housing, and the greenhouse, which would remove them from their current oil heating system.
As we prepared to leave we made way for one of the students and staff members as they entered to check temperatures and to feed the fish. The student, about 10 years old, went and fed the fish then reported to Mr. Barnes that his mustard plant at home wasn’t as big as the one in the greenhouse, but that it would be soon and then he and his family could eat it.
Mr. Barnes grinned as we exited the greenhouse “You see, that student would never have said something like that a year ago, but now we have students, and their families, learning to grow food at home. Amazing!” he commented as he led me around the back of the greenhouse.
We stopped along a fence that over looked into a neighboring yard and again grinning Mr. Barnes explained what we were looking at, “The students raise the chickens down there, and that fence running around those empty boxes down there, those were built by the students. The eggs are harvested and some supplement the school lunch program, others are sold within the community, and some are incubated so we get baby chicks. The chicks are sold sometimes, and some are kept to increase the number of chickens we have. But that’s all student built and ran down there.”
Thinking my tour is about over I get ready to say thank you and to take my leave, but instead we walk toward the school’s dining area and kitchen, stopping along the way to speak briefly with another teacher and checking on an egg incubator “some of these eggs came from our chickens here in Naukati, the others came from chickens in Whale Pass. We plan on incubating and hatching these chicks and mixing some of the Whale Pass chicks in with our own in Naukati, then the others we will sell to the community,” the teacher explains.
We continue into the kitchen and chat briefly with the staff and peek in the fridge to see it stocked with produce from the greenhouse and eggs from the chickens below, all of which is used to supplement the student lunches. It’s obvious that this is a source of pride for the school, staff and students as we leave the kitchens and go back to the classroom in which I first met Mr. Barnes.
There we discuss the many amazing opportunities that the greenhouse has brought the students of Naukati, “We have 15 students, Kindergarten through 12th grade, we can’t afford to build a million dollar auto shop here,” he states, “But, we can build an aquaponics system that every student can utilize. That system allows us all sorts of opportunities for our students. They’re involved in every step. They helped build the greenhouse, they grow, harvest, and package the produce. They’re the ones making deliveries to the markets and selling the produce. It’s opened up an entrepreneur class for them, which is involved with the students learning about finances, and banking, and starting business and being entrepreneurs. The art class designs the logos for their products, the science classes learn some basic chemistry, and we teach basics of ecosystems with our greenhouse. The younger kids are involved too. You saw the signs and labels, that’s been helping them develop their handwriting and their spelling. These students are involved every step of the way, and we simply involved the existing curriculum with what we were doing here with the greenhouse.”
Mr. Barnes is clearly proud of what they’re doing in Naukati, and he’s confident that it won’t end with just the greenhouse and chickens. That’s when it struck me. This system wasn’t just a greenhouse, it was a community greenhouse that grew into something more. The signs were all there. From the hand written placards labeling what’s growing where or reminding the community to close the door tightly when they leave, and on to the middle school and high school students that had helped build the fences to keep the deer out of the gardens, to the teachers stopping to check on incubating eggs. This was a school based, student operated, community driven project.