What do guppies and hatchet fish have to do with lettuce and swiss chard?
Wyatt Beauchamp, who is 10 years old, can tell you. In detail. He may be the most passionate of the youths participating in the nationally recognized University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s 4-H virtual aquaponics program.
“I love fish,” he says. “Any way to work them into my life is amazing. This program is amazing.”
Connecting fish and food seemed like an obvious step for Wyatt and his family, who own and operate Lone Spruce Farm in Dedham.
Beauchamp currently maintains five home aquariums, including a 75-gallon aquaponics system he uses to grow greens like lettuce and swiss chard with a little help from his ornamental freshwater fish. And it seems like he is already charting his career path — one that includes designing aquaponics systems for others.
His aquaponics system uses the flood and drain method to produce vegetables in a grow bed filled with clay media and hydrated with water drawn from his largest aquarium. His aquatic community, including guppies, hatchet fish, gouramis, tetras, swordtails and catfish, produce ammonia-rich waste which is converted to nitrate by beneficial bacteria that thrive on the media in the grow bed. The nitrates produced fertilize the crops rooted in the grow bed. The effluent, stripped of nitrates by the vegetables and biologically and mechanically filtered by the clay media, requires no additional filtration before it cycles back into the fish tank.
“We have year-round food happening in the dining room — that’s cool,” says his mom, Kristin.
That’s in a dining room the family renovated to accommodate the oversized tank.
The level of commitment doesn’t surprise Carla Scocchi, the 4-H youth development professional who initiated the aquaponics program in summer 2017 with a colleague from the UMaine Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research (CCAR) in Franklin.
“We give the youth the tools and the resources that they need, and they just blow us out of the water,” Scocchi says.
She and Melissa Malmstedt, the education and outreach coordinator at CCAR, introduced aquaponics as an EPSCoR-funded aquaculture education project serving youth with disabilities. Aquaponics tanks were established at CCAR, and the participants would come to care for the fish about twice a week.
According to Scocchi, the aquaponics program, like all 4-H offerings, presents an opportunity for youth ages 9–18 to explore their STEM interests while learning about themselves.
“It really is a model of experiential learning, inquiry-based learning, youth-led learning,” says Scocchi. “At 4-H, our programs have always been hands-on to facilitate learning by doing and to develop important life skills, like resilience.
Carla Scocchi, a 4-H youth development professional with University of Maine Cooperative Extension, started the aquaponics program in 2017 with Melissa Malmstedt, the education and outreach coordinator at the UMaine Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research. In November, Scocchi received the 2021 Denise Miller National 4-H Innovator Award, presented annually by the National Association of Extension 4-H Youth Development Professionals.
“Aquaponics is a challenging project, and we ask a lot of these kids. But that’s part of what makes it so great,” says Scocchi, the recipient of the 2021 Denise Miller National 4-H Innovator Award, presented annually by the National Association of Extension 4-H Youth Development Professionals.
The program has evolved since 2017, and now has a new focus on aquaculture education that aligns with the growth of the industry in Maine. Participants develop technical skills in the aquaponics program, too — skills that employers value.
“The youth learn a little bit about plumbing, a little bit about electricity, and different lamps and pumps,” Scocchi says. “Having a home-based aquarium is having a mini-recirculating aquaculture system in the home. We could be turning their love of fish into a job in Maine someday.”
When the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020, Scocchi and Malmstedt had already mapped out the summer aquaponics program.
In the end, the 2020 program was nothing at all like what they had planned. Sustaining connections and building resilience for youth became the focus of this and many other 4-H programs.
The pair immediately went back to aquaponics, knowing that anybody who has a fish tank at home could easily turn it into an aquaponics system.
In some ways, the pandemic facilitated the growth of the aquaponics program, as well as the discovery of some unexpected silver linings.
Scocchi and Malmstedt welcomed Scarlett Tudor, the education and outreach coordinator at UMaine’s Aquaculture Research Institute, to the leadership team in 2020. Her plans also had been disrupted by COVID-19 when ARI programs were put on hold, events were canceled and students were learning remotely. Tudor, who participated in 4-H as a child, saw this as an opportunity to connect with kids who love fish, but might be unaware of very real career opportunities.
“My interactions with Cooperative Extension actually started when I was 8,” says Tudor. “I took aquaria in 4-H in rural Ohio. I took my aquarium to the state fair, so I would love to give a little bit of that back.”
Tudor believes that her early exposure to aquaria and ornamental fish played an important role in her career development, and she wants the youth in the aquaponics program to visualize a future working with fish.
“I realized that you can actually get jobs working with fish,” she says. “4-H gave me the environment to explore my passion and I feel like I am helping kids find a career path involving aquatic species. I wish I had more mentors like me, telling me, ‘You can totally get a job doing this.’”
Adding Tudor to the aquaponics leadership team has strengthened the workforce development aspect of the program, particularly by connecting youth with another accessible role model who works with fish.
The shift to virtual programming connected students from all across Maine, including those who would have been unable to travel to in-person meetings.
“They see these other kids who are really obsessed with fish and they think that’s cool,” Scocchi says. “It’s very neat to see. And I was with kids virtually that I would have never seen in person.”
In addition, it seems that aquaponics builds family camaraderie through engagement with the fish at the heart of the system.
Wyatt’s mother couldn’t agree more.
“We have all taken a little part of Wyatt’s passion. If the tank could be a family member, it is one now,” she says.
Tudor recalls the comments received at the conclusion of last year’s program, where participants’ families identified the project as one that engaged the entire household. Parent testimonials described the tanks as a focal point for their family while they were isolated at home.
According to Scocchi and Tudor, the connection established in this program goes beyond a teacher-student relationship; they get to know each other very well and they consider each a friend.
“They aren’t just my teachers, they are helpful friends,” he says.