I met Oscar, a tilapia, swimming in a tank in the lobby of Santa Fe Community College's Trades and Advanced Technology Center. As I wrote in a column last year, "the building itself emits a sense of future optimism," geared as it is toward degree and certificate programs across a spectrum of fields—from biofuels to controlled environment agriculture—rooted in emerging sustainability practices. Detailing the complex's green features would take up all the space I have.

Oscar acts as a kind of mascot (and is part of a student club) for the school's Controlled Environment Agriculture's aquaponics program, where students are learning how to grow fish and vegetables in contained environments with recycled water.

Charlie Shultz (left), lead faculty for SFCC’s controlled environment agriculture program, teaches students to farm with fish.
Charlie Shultz (left), lead faculty for SFCC’s controlled environment agriculture program, teaches students to farm with fish. | Julia Goldberg

Charlie Shultz, lead faculty for the controlled environment agriculture program, has been working with fish and plants for more than 20 years as both a researcher and educator, and began developing the fish production system using tilapia while at the University of the Virgin Islands.

"There was no fresh water and very expensive land," Shultz says of the conditions in the Caribbean. "And when you have limited land and limited water, you have to recycle water—every drop is precious."

While Shultz developed the specific tilapia system in the Virgin Islands, his self-described "lightbulb" moment around the need to grow food in a controlled environment happened in the late '80s in response to news reports about hospital waste being dumped in the Atlantic Ocean.

"I knew at that moment our open systems are potentially contaminated," he says, "My lightbulb moment or realization was, 'I'm going to grow fish in a controlled environment with safe water and safe feed and grow food for humanity in a safe manner.'"

Concerns about contaminated food, Shultz says, have only increased in the decades since, with rising levels of estrogen and opioids, not to mention Fukushima radiation. "I don't trust the wild anymore," Shultz says. He sees tilapia, already in the top three of popular fish, only growing in popularity, particularly when consumers can feel safe about its sourcing. "Most consumers love it," he says. "It's the tofu of fish: piece of white meat that has no flavor."

But fish farming is only part of the equation in the multiple growing environments in which students returning to campus this week will learn the ins and outs of hydroponics and aquaponics. The latter sector is relatively new, Shultz says, and SFCC's is one of three accredited programs specializing in the field, offering both an associate's degree and certificate program in controlled environment agriculture.

"My students end up with a green thumb and a wet thumb," he says. "If they can walk out very confident in horticulture and very confident in the hydroponics and water moving and pumps and electrical conductivity and all these things, those two skills sets will get them a job anywhere."

Students in the program receive plenty of hands-on experience. Our first stop was a vertical farm pod owned by FarmPod. The system is self-contained and runs off-grid on 300 watts of electricity while using tilapia, koi and goldfish below to grow vegetables such as broccoli, cherry tomatoes, lettuce and a variety of herbs above in a vertical space-efficient system. Moreover, the system is designed to be automated, meaning it could be monitored and run from anywhere. The company's website (farminapod.com) proclaims a motto of "feeding the world one pod at a time" with less waste, less labor and greater production of food made available anywhere. Some of the produce is used by students in the culinary arts program, as well as made available to students. A larger greenhouse adjacent to the pod is where most of the students' projects will take place, as well as in multi-use classrooms where students both grow and study plants. Shultz' program interfaces with other sustainability initiatives in the department where students are studying biofuels, solar energy, algae production and much more.

This semester, students are installing innovative nanogrid technologies (a single building energy system deserving of its own coverage at a later date) into the school's 12,000-square foot greenhouse, along with commercial hydroponic and aquaponic systems, which will be available to students starting in the spring 2019 semester. The produce will be partially used to help create campus food sovereignty, as well as to serve the Food Depot and other partners, Shultz says (beyond providing food for people on earth, aquaponics may have galactic potential as well—Shultz co-authored a paper on its potential for "biogenerative space life support systems").

Space aside, here on earth, hydro- and aquaponics represent a paradigm shift in food production. "Twenty five years ago, I was before my time. I sometimes tell my students they're still before their time," Shultz says.

Continuing Education Classes with Shultz:

Growing Without Soil: Hydroponics and Aquaponics
9 am-2 pm Saturdays Sept. 22 or Oct. 27. $129 each.

Build a Soilless Growing System
9 am-2 pm Sundays Sept. 23 or Oct. 28. $129 each.

Santa Fe Community College, 6401 Richards Ave., 428-1676; sfcc.edu/continuing-education-schedule