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As agriculture worldwide continues to advance and innovate in an attempt to feed our ever-growing global population, unique and specialized productions systems are popping up all the time.  One such system, referred to as aquaponics, includes an interesting mixture of plants and aquatic organisms.  Some folks right here on the University of Illinois Campus are currently using this agricultural system to produce locally grown plants and animals for the menu at Bevier Café.

Aquaponics systems combine aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (raising plants in a soil-less system) to create a more sustainable system of plant and animal production that compliments the attributes of each method in a mutually beneficial production system. 

In a traditional hydroponics system, plants are grown in a soil-less environment where their roots are immersed in water that supplies all plant needs otherwise provided by the soil environment.  Nutrient solutions are added to the water in a hydroponics system to “feed” the plants while the water itself is freely available as plants need moisture.  As fish are added to the system in aquaponics, the waste produced by fish creates nutrients for plant uptake, eliminating the need for specially added nutrients and careful monitoring of water chemistry to ensure healthy plants. 

In aquaculture, fish effluent builds up over time requiring removal and daily addition of fresh water to keep contaminants at safe levels for fish.  This process consumes a significant amount of water and produces waste water that must be properly handled.  In an aquaponics system, beneficial bacteria (naturally present in water) convert the fish effluent to plant usable nutrients.   The plants filter nutrients from the water and use them to grow, making use of what would otherwise be a waste produce in aquaculture.

So, how did this intricate system of plants and animals wind up in production at the U of I campus?  Enter Justin Vozzo, a freshman at the University of Illinois back in 2014.  “I’ve always been interested in sustainable agriculture or gardening and the aquaponics idea came from a class project I completed my freshman year,” says Vozzo.  After completion of the class project, Vozzo took it another step and submitted the idea to the Student Sustainably Committee, who funds projects campus wide that are focused on improving sustainability.  Vosso’s proposal competed with others across campus and was selected for funding in November of 2015.

As Vosso’s class project idea became reality, work involved in maintaining the system became a burden to the full time student and active volunteer.  He was able to connect with several interested student groups to coordinate maintenance of the system, but still worried about the project’s future.   “We were really looking for a more permanent home for the aquaponics system, a group on campus that could maintain production long-term with additional volunteer hours and funding, “says Vozzo, who will graduate next fall. 

Carter Phillips, manager of the Bevier Café on U of I campus, had been involved in the early development of Vosso’s aquaculture project as he helped to source some of the greens being grown in the system.  Since the aquaponics systems resides a few hundred yards from Bevier Hall, it seemed like a natural fit for his group.  “I am constantly looking for more local foods to add to our menu and the aquaponics project is a perfect fit,” says Philips.  Phillips and his staff, with on-going guidance from the system’s original architect, Vosso, have successfully taken over management of the project.

Last fall, Phillips and Vosso were able to harvest the first generation of fish from the system.  The Bevier Café Menu featured tilapia and garlic greens, all produced in the aquaponics system. “It’s rare to offer a featured paring of two menu items produced with an aquaculture system, “said Phillips.  The paring is a wonderful compliment to a menu that already features a plethora of locally sourced ingredients each week.

The aquaponics system is currently in full production, with fresh produce harvested weekly for use on the Bevier Café Menu.  This spring Phillips and Vosso transitioned from tilapia to freshwater prawn.  “We were actually experiencing nutrient buildup in the system from the tilapia,” commented Vosso.  The two decided to make a switch to the less nutrient-producing prawn to better align their production system.  Prawn will be harvested sometime during fall semester and will be featured in another delicious paring with plants grown in the system. 

The Bevier Café, located in Bevier Hall, is a student-operated café offering a variety of great cuisine for lunch, Monday through Friday (11:30-1:00) during each semester. This unique facility is part of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition curriculum, ran by Carter Phillips who is an alumnus of the program himself.   Follow them on Facebook or access their menu online to watch for upcoming menu items from the aquaponics system.