The chapter, led by president Danny Kiehl, has recently built an elaborate aquaculture and hydroponics system in their school greenhouse.
After learning about an internet auction from a Kansas City magnet high school's FFA program, they were able to purchase the basics for the system.
The system includes four 400-gallon tanks, two flat flood tables for watering standard greenhouse plants and baskets, along with hundreds of feet of water and air lines. Last week they added about 300 goldfish, fantails, Koi and other ornamental fish.
"We're going to raise them up and hopefully at the end of this year, when we have our plant sale, we'll sell them for water gardens or we'll sell them for fish bait," Kiehl said. They expect the Koi to grow about two inches longer in that time, while the goldfish should grow up to 1.5 inches longer.
"It's supposed to be 10 times better as far as nutrients for the plant," Kiehl explained. The system he designed and built with the help of other FFA members uses a large pipe in the center of the tanks which accumulates the solid fish waste.
"The idea is to take it over to that flood bed over there and the plants suck it up and clean the water out and we repump the water back," he explained. "That's how we clean it and feed plants at the same time."
By using a biological filter and adding beneficial bacteria weekly, the ammonia from the used fish water is converted into available nitrogen for the plants.
"Instead of watering from the top, we are watering from the bottom," explained FFA advisor Terry Jenkins, exhibiting the extreme difference in root systems and color between greenhouse plants fed by commercial fertilizer and those watered from recycled fish water. "They are healthy, but nothing like these that we've ran through the fish tank."
They also will be growing lettuce in the water, and have built containers out of piping to keep the plants floating in the middle of the tanks. The Kansas City school sells more than 30,000 heads of lettuce a year, Kiehl said, adding the KC system is much bigger and more elaborate.
"The difference between fish waste and animal waste, is there is no ecoli," Jenkins said. "You can take it right out of there and it's not an issue."
They have been working on the project since at least June, when Jenkins saw an email notice about the auction and asked Kiehl if he was interested in working on the project.
Through trial and error, internet research and some sleepless nights, Kiehl said they built the current intricate system they are still working to perfect. Kiehl sketched out the design first planning to line the tanks up along one wall, before realizing that wouldn't work. Most of the pipe was purchased from the KC school, but had to be changed significantly for Malta Bend's tanks. Kiehl said several other students and Jenkins helped him with the plumbing.
"It took me two weeks to decide how to get it to work together," he said, adding he drew up many plans, complete with color-coded pictures of the various air, water and return lines.
"All those valves have to be turned just right, or something can go wrong," Kiehl said. "If it runs over, all the fish come out, they know how to jump over the side."
In order to keep the fish healthy, the students in the Ag Science 2 and Greenhouse classes are in charge of monitoring the system including pH and nitrate levels, as well as water temperature.
"Each person in here is in charge of writing out something different about each tank," Kiehl said.
"They have to take all these everyday, have to record it and if they notice something is wrong, they have to tell me or Mr. Jenkins."
Kiehl said he has learned fish are very "high maintenance."
"It's like babysitting a bunch of preschoolers," he said, laughing, adding the day they were delivered by FedEx, they tried to jump out of the tanks. He or Jenkins will do the feeding during the weekends and Christmas break.
The original plan was to raise game fish such as crappie, tilapia or bass, but the water temperature would need to be more constant, making it too costly.
Jenkins hopes the project will help teach the FFA students skills they can use later in life.
"Not everybody can become a farmer, but the principles around here, whether its farming, or taking cuttings from plants or using fish and fish fertilizer ..." Jenkins said. "You can apply these principles at home. I always try to tell them, you shouldn't ever be unemployable if you have skills."
Kiehl said he has learned many useful skills, including a lot about water pressure.
"If one thing is not right then one will bubble over and another will go dry. If I open all these valves, I can get them to even out, but if not there is a problem," he said. "It's a lot of challenge."
"Me and Danny call it a large science project," Jenkins said. "We don't know the outcome, but we have a hypothesis and when it doesn't work, we have to make another one, and another one and another one."
Contact Marcia Gorrell at email@example.com