Thanks to the aggressive use of grants, Lebanon High School’s Agriculture Department is carving out a niche as one of the most advanced in Indiana.

Agriculture Department head Andrew Dardini introduced aquaculture to his students in August 2018 with a 350-gallon fish tank stocked with a mix of about 60 fish native to Indiana — largemouth bass, catfish and bluegill. The tank and supporting apparatus opened the door to LHS students interested in the growing industry of fish farming. The cost of $4,800 was paid by a grant from the Lebanon Education Foundation and state allocated funds from Indiana’s Career and Technical Education program.

Last fall, Dardini added hydroponics to the list of hands-on agricultural opportunities with a pair of 8-foot-tall growing towers at a cost of about $2,400, paid for with Community Foundation of Boone County grant money.

Set up in the school’s greenhouse, the towers from HydroCycle Vertical Aeroponic Systems use grow tubes that support the flow of oxygen for rapid growth and a nutrient-rich mist for healthy plants. Each tower has 44 “grow sites” that are planted with lettuce and kale. One tower’s 20-gallon reservoir is filled with pH balanced city water. The other, Dardini said, uses wastewater from the aquaculture tank in an experiment to see how the plants respond to the nutrients in fish waste.

“We’ve noticed a difference already,” he said, noting the plants fertilized with fish waste are doing better than those without.

The hydroponics setup, he said, “allows kids to learn about how to grow plants in environments where there is no soil, like in urban settings or areas without access to viable soil – an alternative technique to produce food in areas without soil.”

The third addition – a robotic farming device called FarmBot – became operational last week. The FarmBot hardware is mounted on a student-built wooden planting box that measures about 4½ feet by about 9½ feet. The waist-high box holds about 5 inches of potting soil.

The FarmBot hardware consists of a robotic arm attached to an aluminum frame that can travel to any spot in the box to plant a seed, water the seed, collect sample soil moisture, photograph individual plants and collect a wide range of data, giving students a wide range of information about the growth process of whatever plants they choose to grow.

The equipment is controlled by a laptop computer using open-source Computer Assisted Design (CAD) software commonly used in architecture, robotics, manufacturing and construction, Dardini said.

The FarmBot setup, he said, “can grow a little bit of everything, vegetable-wise, so the kids can collect data, and they can mix and match what goes in to maximize the space they’ve got.”

The FarmBot cost about $2,600, paid from a state Career and Technical Education grant and some funds left over from an earlier U.S. Department of Agriculture grant.

“The FarmBot will be used by plant and soils classes, horticulture classes, and others. We’re collaborating with the science department several students there can utilize our greenhouse,” he said. “We’re trying to benefit everyone in the building.”

All of this innovation is unique to Lebanon High School’s Agriculture program, he said.

“We’re the only high school in the state with aquaculture, hydroponics and FarmBot,” he said. “Nobody else is doing what we’re doing in a high school setting.”

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