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Hannahville expands aquaponics program

ROD LOVELL, GENERAL manager of AquaTerra, points to the different types of lettuce growing within one of the greenhouses at the controlled agricultural training center in Hannahville. The facility, now known as AquaTerra, recently finished a major upgrade. It now consists of two different aquaponic systems. (Clarissa Kell/Daily Press photo)

HANNAHVILLE — After three years of upgrades, the expansion of Hannahville’s aquaponics program, which was first started by Hannahville’s Youth Services Department in 2013, is now operational.

Aquaponics refers to any system that combines conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment.

“It took about three years to get it all done,” said Rod Lovell, the general manager to AquaTerra — the new name of the controlled environment agricultural training center in Hannahville.

He explained the older aquaponics system was created in 2013 as part of a youth project, but funding in 2016 allowed for a serious expansion to the center.

Lovell said the upgrades did not officially start until 2017 and the upgrades had just finished recently.

He noted they were recently able to harvest their first crop from the upgraded aquaponic system, as well.

The $1.1 million center comprises of 1,500 square feet of four greenhouses, a polebarn for the fish tanks and classroom area, another polebarn and a processing area.

“They’re all pretty much connected,” Lovell said.

He said the three main funding sources for the center were grants from the Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Indian Health Services of Bemidji, Minn.

There are two different aquaponic processes in Hannahville’s facility — the original aquaponic system and the newer aquaponic system.

Lovell explained the main differences between the two processes would be the newer system is larger in scale, the nitrogen cycles are conducted differently, and the newer process is a hybrid and an uncoupled system. The original aquaponic system is a coupled system, meaning it all has to work together to work.

The process begins with the fish, which are mainly tilapia, in the many fish tanks at the facility.

According to Lovell, the fish used are switched out every six weeks as they continue to grow.

Lovell explained two benefits to using fish compared to other animals is the food conversion rate and safety.

“Another thing that’s cool about fish when you compare it to other livestock is the feed-conversion rate,” he said. “Fish are 1.5 to 1, so if I feed the fish a pound and a half, the fish in this tank then are going to gain a pound out of that. In comparison, a cow is eight, a turkey is about four, a chicken is about two and a half — so in order to get a pound to go on a cow, you have to feed it eight pounds of feed. The fish … for feed conversion, they’re the best.”

Another benefit to using fish is because they’re sanitarily safer.

Lovell explained when working with warm-blooded animals, things can be transferred to humans, so sterilization is extremely important — while fish are cold blooded, so it’s safer.

Water is pumped into the fish tanks and once the tanks are full and the water is fertilized by the fish, the forces of water pressure and gravity cause the water to flow into another tank where it is filtered to stop solids and break them down.

The next step is the nitrogen cycle of the aquaponic system.

According to Lovell, after the water from the fish tank is filtered through a membrane, it flows into the tank of microbes. The microbes work on the water, changing ammonia and ammonium to nitrite and then to nitrate, which is used to fertilize the plants growing in the greenhouses.

The original system uses media beds and worms to create the nitrogen cycle.

The water then travels to the plants within the greenhouse before returning to the sump tank, where the process begins anew.

Lovell noted both systems use only one pump in the entire process, almost entirely operating by gravity and water pressure.

“It’s a recycling system — water is constantly moving between everything,” he said.

AquaTerra produces an assortment of lettuce, micro-greens, herbs, tomatoes and cucumbers.

Lovell said, as of right now, the vegetables produced and harvested at the center are used at Hannahville’s Farmer’s Market, the Nah Tah Wahsh PSA and Hannahville Indian School, the Island Resort and Casino, and can now be purchased at Elmer’s County Market.

He added with the higher production rate because of the expanded facility, they are looking to provide produce for more community events and expand where the produce can be made available. Prior to the expansion, the facility was growing 600 heads of lettuce each week, now it can produce 4,000 heads a week.

With the original focus of the aquaponic system being to teach children, the center is working towards bringing in students from local schools.

According to Lovell, he is in talks with Bark River-Harris School, Nah Tah Wahsh PSA and Hannahville Indian School and the local Intermediate School District (ISD) on incorporating the center in students’ education.

“We call it a controlled environment agricultural training center,” he said. “It was built to train others.”

The local center has a huge impact on not only the students but the surrounding communities, as it produces nutritious vegetables right here in the Upper Peninsula year-round.

According to Lovell, the facility is important because it provides locally sourced food — where it is grown here in the community, picked and eaten here.

Amber Megenuph, greenhouse staff, said the food produced at the facility is fresh and has a longer shelf life than other produce found at grocery stores.

She added the facility, being located so close to the Hannahville school, provides a benefit because it encourages younger children to eat their vegetables.

Another greenhouse staff member, Karen Miller, noted the importance of the facility because it not only brings people together, but is a way to teach the community in Hannahville, especially the younger generations, about the farming culture of their ancestors.

“We go way back in the farming culture and this is kind of bringing it back,” Miller said.

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