Last Updated on October 15, 2019 by Angela Colonna
Green Sky Growers by Valencia College operates urban aquaponic and hydronic systems to showcase how to grow local, fresh produce. Based in downtown Winter Garden, Green Sky Growers by Valencia College is located in a state-of-the-art rooftop greenhouse facility to demonstrate production methods using fish tanks and hydroponic towers to grow rows of lettuce and herb varieties.
The greenhouse is a 3,000-square-foot ‘garden’ housing the 1,500-gallon fish tanks to support a closed-loop farming system used to grow food crops and maintain fish with minimal use of chemicals.
“Sometimes we play around with production methods or different plants to see what grows best,” said Robby Pletcher, greenhouse manager.
Tilapia are kept in the system’s fish tanks because they eat inexpensive feed, reproduce successfully in captivity and grow at steady rates. The health of the fish is managed by their diets, water temperature and water quality.
Fish waste is then processed, filtered and nutrients are absorbed through the lettuce crop. Any excess water is delivered back into the fish tanks. Both the fish and lettuce benefit from this process. When possible, the lettuce and herbs are donated to local businesses.
“We have sufficient space to grow produce but being on a rooftop has its limits,” Pletcher said. “This only pushes us to be more efficient.”
Green Sky Growers by Valencia College offers internships for Valencia College students in greenhouse production, hydroponic and aquaponic systems. These hands-on experiences give plant science and agricultural technology students the chance to focus on traditional production topics like fertilizer, irrigation and pest control but in an urban setting, a relatively new subsection of agriculture.
“We want Valencia students to experience managing a greenhouse in an actual greenhouse,” Pletcher said. “Textbooks cannot prepare you for everything.”
Pletcher noted that each day is different in the greenhouse, and you need to manage pests, irrigation issues, plant health and aquaponics equipment on the spot to avoid harming the tilapia or plants.
For more information, go to the Green Sky Growers by Valencia College head to their Facebook page.