Niche Farming: Growing Revenue for your Farm or Ranch
St. Mary’s Academy is in the planning process to develop a Farm to School Program (FTS). The school is seeking additional partners in the Bee County to join in making the Farm to School Program a community wide program. The Farm to School program benefits the entire community in several ways including: children receiving more diverse nutritious locally grown products; expanding access to institutional markets for local farmers; expanding the local economy by increasing local producers and processors thereby creating new local jobs.
As part of the planning process, the school will be studying a variety of options available for area farmers and potential producers to consider. Under the broad category of Niche Farming, we will look at a number of options for area producers to consider. In preliminary research the following projects were highly rated for beginning producers to try: Poultry (Broiler Chickens; hatching chicks), Microgreens; Aquaponics Farming/Hydroponic Farming; Mushroom farming (Oyster, Shiitake, Exotic); eggs and specialty crops.
St. Mary’s has chickens, but has no plans to expand the chicken operation for use in the cafeteria. The niche they are interested in exploring and expanding is Aquaponics. In 2019 the school built the John Simonson Aquaculture Center, donated in memory of Mr. Simonson’s brother, who was a volunteer at the school. The initial aquaculture program was success and the school is now interested in expanding it to provide some produce for the cafeteria.
Aquaponics is the hybrid of aquaculture and hydroponics. Aquaculture is the raising of ornamental fish, edible fish or bait fish. Hydroponics is growing plants without soil. Separately aquaculture and hydroponics are not environmentally friendly. Aquaculture is water intensive and creates significant waste that can result in pollution. Hydroponics requires a number of chemicals, water and also may result in pollution. When combined, however, they are perfectly sustainable, and the system is called aquaponics.
The Aquaponics system uses pumps which route the waste water generated by the fish through a medium where nitrifying bacteria break down the waste. The bacteria produce nitrites and nitrates which are then used by the plants to grow. The water is effectively cleaned and recycled to the fish. Other than water lost to evaporation, the system is self-sustaining. The current system at St. Mary’s loses approximately 5 gallons a day to evaporation. As part of the GREEN Garden program at St. Mary’s, the school is investigating a water reclamation system, to make the system even more sustainable. Nick Hernandez, the FTS Liaison, has been experimenting with different plants including microgreens and currently has an overabundance of mint.
As part of the FTS program, St. Mary’s will be expanding its Aquaponics System to provide a reliable source of fresh greens for weekly meal plans. Nick has several ideas for tasting produce for the children at the school to choose from. One of the benefits of the FTS program is it increases exposure of different foods to the students, without the long term commitment of a cafeteria, which purchases in bulk.
Later in the Academic year, St. Mary’s plans to host a seminar, to show community members how they can start with a small Aquaponics System. Ken Nagle builds his systems for under $1,000, which he indicates will provide produce for a family of 4. If you are interested in learning more about the program, touring the garden, or becoming part of the planning team, please contact Nick Hernandez at St. Mary’s 361-358-5601.
St. Mary's has a school farm that is integrated into the school curriculum. The farm is located on the elementary campus. Each grade has a focus on the farm as to what they grow or care for. As part of the school program each grade will harvest their produce during the year. A variety of cultural food fairs are held through the school year. Each student brings in a dish created with their produce. The fourth, fifth and sixth grade students use the farm as part of an entrepreneurial curriculum, robotics curriculum and a career exploration program. In the spring, students use produce, products or other student generated ideas to host an entrepreneurial day/open air market.
St. Mary's Academy Charter School, 410 N Tyler, Beeville, Texas 78102
Mailing: 507 N. Filmore, Beeville, Texas 78102
Phone: (361) 358-5601
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