What lies within the Tarleton State University Agriculture Center facilities may be unknown to most. The Hydrotron greenhouse was established in 2015 and is a 2,100-gallon aquaponics system used for raising fish and growing soil-less plants in an integrated system, and is quite an impressive site.
After student enrollment in turf grass began to decrease, Dr. Hennen Cummings — professor of aquaponics in the Wildlife, Sustainability and Ecosystem Sciences Department — decided he needed a new specialty.
“We partnered with ‘Aquaponics and MORE!’ in Granbury to help get us started and then I did an online training course with Murray Hallam, who’s the Australian beating the aquaponics drum on YouTube,” Cummings said. “Then I went to Saint Croix where the person who really developed aquaponics at the University of the Virgin Islands offered a three-day workshop, and I did that.”
Inside the Hydrotron greenhouse, Cummings along with his students, produce food and raise fish without the use of pesticides or soil in a controlled environment.
Cummings is from North Carolina and moved to Stephenville in 2004 to work at Tarleton where he started teaching turf grass management until 2013 when the department was changed to Wildlife, Sustainability and Ecosystem Sciences.
“So this kind of brings wildlife, sustainability and agriculture together because wildlife people like the fish, the agriculture is growing the plants and then the sustainability people love how I can try to keep all the waste in the greenhouse,” Cummings said. “There’s no discharge and usually in any type of animal agriculture there’s waste that needs to be discharged.”
The greenhouse raises tilapia, prawns and catfish and grows lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.
“We can grow a head of lettuce with about 10 percent of the water it would take to grow it outside because of the loss to evaporation and water reaching beyond the root zone,” Cummings said.
There are two main types of aquaponic systems, one is a raft-base where the water containing fish circulates underneath the plants.
“So those are leafy plants because they’re just getting their nutrients from fish water,” Cummings said. “Another type of aquaponics is where the fish waste is put in a gravel root zone and worms liberate the solid waste so then more nutrients are available and you can grow fruiting plants.”
The fish are raised in giant tubs until they’re big enough to place in the aquaponics system.
“I don’t want to grow as many fish I can, I want to have a balance with the amount of plants that I have,” Cummings said.
The greenhouse uses a clarifier, a mineralization tank, and then a tank to oxygenize the water before it goes to the plants.
The purpose of the Hydrotron greenhouse is to teach students aquaponics.
“In labs students learn how to germinate seeds and transfer seedlings to the rafts, how to prune tomatoes, how to design an aquaponics system and how to rear fish,” the TSU aquaponics webpage states. “Students prepare meals using tilapia and vegetables grown in the Hydrotron in labs.”
The greenhouse is open to the community from 1-5 p.m. on Fridays for the purchase of tilapia, Cummings said he will also take appointments for different days.
“We’re trying to get a buying club for the lettuce where we bring in the tower to a business and people can just get what they want,” Cummings said. “Trying to make it convenient is the big thing because people don’t want to drive someplace to get a head of lettuce, but we could drop it off.”
Since the aquaponics class is only taught in the spring and Cummings wants his students to build the towers, the buying club has been put on the back burner for now.
“If I make all the towers, then it’s just one more time I’ve done it and one less time my students have done it so it’s a slow path,” Cummings said. “We build and then we filet and make a salad because making dinner brings the group together so then the class becomes more of a community. The students then get to learn how to eat healthy and prepare a meal in 20 minutes.”
To make an appointment with Cummings or to learn more about aquaponics contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We want to let people know we’re here, we don’t want to be a secret, and we don’t want to only be accessible through a buying club,” Cummings said. “We’re just trying to teach people about aquaponics.”