A new culture at TAHS

TANK MAINTENANCE — Austin Axford (left) and Derek VanDam work on cleaning the 400-gallon fish tank in the ag room at Tracy Area High School recently. The tank is home to 10 tilapia, which are being raised by aquaculture students.

Aquaculture class at TAHS, partnership with tru Shrimp provides a virtual seafood buffet, served to students in the name of learning

By Per Peterson

Fish in Tracy, shrimp in Balaton. For students like Tracy Area High School senior Austin Axford, that’s a perfect combination.

Axford is one of eight TAHS students who signed up for the Aquaculture program the school offers through a partnership with Ralco.

“I wanted to learn more about fish and shrimp, and when (ag teacher Jason Kaare) told me about this class, I thought, ‘This is something that interests me,’” said Axford, a senior.

The Aquaculture program is no ordinary class. At TAHS, class members are raising 10 tilapia in a fish tank the school purchased with a $50,000 LYFT grant. To qualify for the grant, the school had to create a new class or program that would ultimately help a certain business grow their workforce, that being Ralco’s trū Shrimp, which is headquartered in Balaton. Another grant requirement was that TAHS had to collaborate with another school to get the grant. That school is Russell-Tyler-Ruthton, which is about the same distance from Balaton as Tracy is.

“It just made sense transportation-wise, logistics-wise,” Kaare said. “There are Balaton kids that go to RTR and it’s the same distance away so it works out well.”

The LYFT grant helped pay for the fish tank, any needed supplies and training this past summer at Ralco that prepared Kaare for the class. He put in 60 hours at trū Shrimp, basically serving as intern, learning about different aspects of the company, aquaculture, to go along with curriculum development and creation.

The tank that is serving as the new home to the 10 tilapia is tucked into the northeast corner of the ag room at TAHS and hard to miss. It can hold up to 50 pounds of fish.

“It’s something different — you don’t walk into an average classroom and see a gigantic, 400-gallon fish tank,” Kaare said.

An automatic feeder was recently added to the tank, and the water is constantly filtered by an air pump. About the only thing the students need to keep an eye on is the temperature and the ph level of the water. Air pressure is used to pull water into the bio-filter, which is where the “good” bacteria will live and help keep the water clean. That water then goes back into the tank. Water is back flushed four to six times a day.

“If the ammonia is too high, they’ll die,” Axford said.

Creating the ideal environment for the fish is all part of the learning process, Kaare said, as was attaining food for the newest members of the school.

“Tilapia feed is hard to get in southwest Minnesota,” Kaare said. “I had to special order it from the Chandler feed store in Edgerton. Once I ordered it, it was another two weeks before it actually showed up because it’s a special-order item.”

To help get them started here, Luverne High School gave Kaare the fish for free. In the future, he said the school would more than likely purchase the fish from a hatchery in Florida. The one-pound tilapia are young — like teenage tilapia, he said — so it will be a good way for the school to try things out and see how it goes. Kaare said tilapia are a commonly-farmed species and are very hardy. Tilapia can grow to about 3 to 5 pounds and between 7 to 10 inches in length.

“Because we’ve never done this before, we’re probably going to make mistakes along the way,” he said. “Things with water quality, feed — they will survive beginning mistakes very well.”

Aquaculture class sessions at TAHS are Monday, Thursday and Friday. A big part of the class is learning about the management that goes into raising fish — things like testing the water to make sure it’s within the correct parameters for the fish. As for the fate of the fish, the plan is for the students to process them at the end of the semester.

Kaare said the students showed genuine excitement about having a tank in the classroom with live fish.

“I had a couple kids that really dove into getting that all put together — they kind of took it and ran with it,” he said. “I had kids coming in during their study halls to fiddle with it and trying to get it to work. It’s really fun to see when kids are going out of their way to work on a special project like this.”

For more on this article, see this week’s Headlight-Herald.