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Locally grown aquaponic lettuce served up fresh on UW-SP campus

Naomi Albert
The Pointer-UW-SP
A student prepares salad at Upper Debot with lettuce grown using aquaponics.

The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Dining Services now offers local aquaponic lettuce at the deli line and salad bar in the Dreyfus University Center, and the salad bar at Upper Debot.

This lettuce is grown just over 60 miles south of campus at Nelson and Pade Inc. in Montello, Wisconsin.

Aquaponic lettuce was first offered to students at these locations last semester and since then has grown in popularity.

Angel Alcantar, assistant director of culinary operations on campus, says that demand is so great at Upper Debot, that the University now purchases 192 heads of aquaponic lettuce a week for that location alone.

Alcantar said that the dining services buys aquaponic lettuce to reflect the student body’s desire for a more sustainable campus.

Alcantar said, “We do a lot in keeping that sustainable piece on campus, and a lot of it is because of conversations that the students bring to our table.”

Aquaponics system

Alcantar said there has even been discussion of building a small aquaponics system on campus when Debot undergoes renovation in 2018, which would ensure fresh produce on campus year-round.

Aquaponics has sparked such strong interest on campus that the university already has their own aquaponics innovation center located at the Nelson and Pade facility in Montello.

Aquaponics differs from conventional agriculture in several ways.

First, the plants are grown in a water solution rather than in soil. Then the nutrients needed for the plants to grow are provided by waste from fish.

Both plants and fish are raised in a recirculating water system. This recirculating system allows aquaponics to save water.

Eventually both the fish and vegetables can be harvested for consumption.

Chris Hartleb, professor of fisheries biology and campus lead scientist at the innovation center, said that aquaponics is a closed system where the only water losses that occur are through evaporation. For this reason he says the process takes up just 10 percent of the water which would be used on a conventional agricultural field.

Hartleb said that in an aquaponic system, the vegetables cannot be sprayed with biocides to avoid harming the fish, and the fish cannot be medicated to prevent contaminating the vegetables.

Promising future

Although, this produces pesticide-free vegetables it also poses difficulties for producers who must find alternative means to control pests and disease.

Despite these difficulties, Hartleb predicts a promising future for the aquaponics business. He said that although the industry is mainly made up of small farms, larger operations are scheduled to open this year.

Hartleb says that University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point was the first university in the nation to offer a semester long aquaponics course. Currently, the school offers an aquaponic certificate program and employs student interns at the center in Montello.

Lucy Jones, sophomore biology major with an aquaculture minor and aquaponics certificate, will be an intern at the Aquaponic Innovation Center this summer.

Jones is excited that the school is carrying aquaponic lettuce since she feels it is a more sustainable method than conventional agriculture. She hopes that her internship will give her the skills to open her own aquaponics operation one day.