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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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In Partnership with NYC High School, Cornell U. Builds and Enhances Sustainable Agriculture Technology

February 8, 2012 |

Students at culinary arts-focused Food and Finance High School in New York City learn more than just how to cook up a good fish fillet—they also learn how to grow the fish along with other foods using real-time, applied science and Cornell University technologies.

The high school is home to the Cornell University Cooperative Extension (CUCE), New York City Hydroponics, Aquaculture, Aquaponics Learning Labs, where students learn how to grow their own tilapia and other fish species, more than 10 different types of lettuce, Chinese cabbages and herbs. The food is used in the campus cafeteria, in the school’s culinary classes and in its student catering program, said Philson A. A. Warner, founding director of the CUCE learning labs. Warner is also CUCE New York City’s coordinator of science, technology and sustainable agriculture.

Philson A. A. Warner, Founding Director, CUCE Hydroponics, Aquaculture, Aquaponics Learning Lab, Science, Technology & Sustainable Agriculture

Warner is the inventor and developer of the technologies, which are the intellectual property of himself and Cornell University and are used at the school site. Using his Biologically Driven Re-circulated High-Speed System (BHS) aquaculture technology, Food and Finance students help raise tilapia and other fish species in tanks where the water is continually re-circulated and biologically reconditioned for fish culturing, feeding and waste removal purposes. The process requires continuous monitoring for bacteria and other things such as oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. The labs at Food and Finance’s campus currently produce at least 48,000 pounds of fish per year, Warner estimates.

With Warner’s Nutrient Drip Flow Technique (NDFT) hydroponics system, nutrient-rich water is circulated through tubes to grow about 10 types of lettuce and various herbs, such as sweet basil, oregano and thyme. In hydroponics, plants are grown in nutrient-enriched water, often without soil.

Students, outfitted in white lab coats, get to experience the science first-hand through their science classes, independent studies and internships, Warner said. Mini-NDFT Hydroponics systems are placed in science classrooms, where teachers use Warner’s Hydroponics Learning Model (HLM) curriculum to help the students meet their state-mandated science lab requirements.

“They have this experiential, hands-on activity while they’re learning all the sciences—the chemistry, the physics, the math and so forth,” he said. “To find out how much (of the) nutrients is required, of course they have to do some mathematical calculations. … They’ve got to do the water chemistry analysis, the dissolved oxygen test, the carbon dioxide tests and so forth. Everything is science-driven.”

Student Intern interacting with and maintaining different varieties of crops grown on the Nutrient Drip Flow Technique (NDFT) Hydroponics Technology in the Sustainable Environmentally Controlled Agriculture (SECA) Cell invented and developed by Philson A.A. Warner at the CUCE, NYC Rooftop Labs. Photo: Philson A. A. Warner/Cornell University Cooperative Extension

Joseph Clausi, assistant principal at Food and Finance High School, says the program meshes well with the school’s focus and provides a different kind of learning experience.

“(The food) is used for either our catering events, or it’s for the direct use inside the classroom for lessons, so it gives that whole perspective of farm to table,” Clausi said. “It’s a lot more useful because of the whole hands-on method, the actual applicable type of education that it offers the kids. They’re not just learning about it, they’re actually doing it.”

Warner, who developed his technologies over the past 35 years, is also the co-author of a curriculum called Grow With The Flow (GWTF). He notes that each of New York City’s five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island) has at least five different high schools using the HLM and GWTF curricula. They are also used at more than 50 afterschool sites throughout the city, Warner said.

Furthermore, the GWTF curriculum is used in every county of New York, throughout the nation and even overseas. Warner noted that his next step will be to release aquaponics technology and an aquaponics curriculum for the school system in New York City.

Aquaponics—a method in which Warner was a pioneer—is the fusion of aquaculture with hydroponics. Warner’s aquaponics technology, the BHS-NDFT system, is a closed-loop system where the nutrient water from the fish is used to feed the plants while the plants are used to clean the water for the fish.

Students Interns at the CUCE Aquaculture Labs collecting data from the Biologically Driven Re-circulating High Speed System (BHS) invented and developed by Philson A.A. Warner at the CUCE Labs. Photo: Philson A. A. Warner/Cornell University Cooperative Extension

Cornell University Cooperative Extension is working with Food and Finance High School to build a 4,500-square-foot aquaponics greenhouse, which will serve to both advance the school’s science curriculum and provide a public learning space. Warner said the $2-million project will likely be completed this summer.

The partnership with the Food and Finance High School is all about broadening the career paths of inner-city youth who are not usually exposed to firsthand knowledge about how food is grown, Warner said.

“Farms are usually in the rural parts of states,” he said. “A lot of these (inner-city) youngsters don’t know the slew of careers in the agriculture and horticulture area.”

Some community observers have been impressed by the things going on at Food and Finance High School and have opted to support its students. Youth-focused nonprofit group The DOME Project—DOME standing for Developing Opportunities through Meaningful Education—used Food and Finance High School’s student catering services to provide food for its annual fundraiser events for the last two years, said Martin Caba, the group’s executive director.

“They have an unbelievable thing going on over there,” said Caba, noting that his team toured the Cornell labs. “What sparked the interest was seeing the opportunities the kids are being presented on their end, and how we can … be there to give the kids opportunities to implement some of the things they’re learning.”

Commercial Opportunity

Warner’s technology goes beyond educational purposes. The Cornell scientist says the main goal of his technology is to make hydroponics, aquaculture and aquaponics sustainable for large-scale commercial purposes.

“We’ve got 7 billion people on the planet, and we’ve got to feed people,” Warner said. “So that means we have to produce food in large scales … in smaller space.”

He recalls the late 1990s and early 2000s when Cornell University gave him the go-ahead to set up his own high-tech fish farm where tilapia was the focus. He says it was the first and only fish farm in New York City. The farm, called Inner City Oceans, became very popular and produced about a quarter of a million pounds of fish in its first year.

“The fish farm was designed to be done in the marketplace, meaning that there was a fish farm—unheard of—in New York City’s marketplace,” Warner said, noting that this equated to a smaller carbon footprint. “I don’t have to truck it across the nation from California or Florida or wherever. … So we minimize the fossil fuel energy requirements of getting the fish from farm to market.”

He said his closed-system technologies have proven that they can produce between 1.5 million and 2 million heads of lettuce per acre/per year, and at least a million pounds of fish per acre/per year. That compares to about 50,000 pounds of fish per acre/per year using pond culture methods, which tends to decrease after the first year due to the fact that ponds will become static over time, Warner said.

 “The key differences (between my technologies and others) are the density of the plant ratio to the density of fish ratio per system, or per space area, and the bio-recirculating strategy used,” Warner said, noting that the plants grow much faster with his systems. “And not only that, but (there’s) sustainability within the technology … (There are) no pesticides, no bactericides, no fungicides—it’s all a clean, almost sterilized environment.”

Warner said he expects his next fish farm will produce at least 10 million pounds of fish each year, and his next hydroponics farm more than 25 million heads of lettuce, Chinese cabbages and herbs per year. He is also working on a new technology that will allow tilapia, a freshwater fish, to be raised in salt water.

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