Quentin Simbala is only in Grade 6 but he’s already something of an expert on aquaponic gardening.
The Hillview elementary school student is fascinated by the aquaponic garden at his school and can often be found tending to the tomatoes, arugula and other plants that grow without soil and all winter long.
“I got interested in this because I really like the idea of fish and gardening, they go together because waste from the fish go up through a pump in the garden and then it gets pumped back into the fish tank every 10 minutes,” said Quentin. “The waste from the fish is turned into nutrients for the plants, and the plants filter and clean the water.”
The aquaponic system was installed in October at Hillview and is one of several in place at schools in the district, including Mission Hill and soon at Charles Bloom secondary in Lumby.
The systems are thanks to the efforts of Roland Peltier, who first learned about aquaponics a few years ago from some fellow carpenters.
““I started watching YouTube videos and I’ve been really passionate about this ever since,” said Peltier, who has since turned this into a business, Vortex Aquaponics. “It’s a mini eco-system and it’s simply growing food using hydroponics and it’s ideal in a place like Vernon where we have water restrictions.”
Aquaponics is an organic food production system that combines aquaculture with hydroponics in a symbiotic relationship. Water cycles through the fish tank, it floods the grow bed and drains back into the tank. Fish waste provides nutrients for the plants, the plants filter water for the fish, and worms provide micronutrients; lights allow the plants to grow.
Peltier said lettuce can grow twice as fast and with 85 per cent less water, and everything is grown without chemicals or fertilizers. Earlier this year, at Mission Hill, eight ziplock bags of mint were harvested.
“The fish give all the plants their nutrients. Every couple of months I clean the tanks and add water every 10 days; it’s very low-maintenance.
The plants sit in a soil-less medium made up of clay pellets, and yes, there are even worms in the garden.
“It’s this whole symbiotic way of living with nature, which has given us this. I identify as aboriginal in my own ancestry and this is really honouring the earth,” said Peltier, who is enjoying teaching his six-year-old son the finer points of aquaponics. “My son and I get a lot of our food from the farmers’ market but it’s hard to find locally grown food all year round, but this is something we can do.
“It was the aboriginal way and that is what I’m bringing back. I was raised in the bush and my dad raised me as a fisherman and a hunter — though I no longer hunt — so I learned to live off the land.”
Peltier said having an aquaponics system in schools is an ideal tool to teach students in subjects such as chemistry and biology.
“This is project-based learning and Quentin is learning so much from this. The principal asked if this young man can help me, so we set it up and he got busy making sure no one picked anything before it was ready.
“The response has been amazing — the PAC has really supported this. The janitor is on my side and in summer we can harvest the crops and billet the fish.”
When he’s not in Mrs. Mackeigan’s class, Quentin keeps busy feeding the 13 fish in the tank, and tending to the plants, pruning them and making everything look good. The Hillview garden is currently home to mint, tomatoes, strawberries, arugula, lettuce, Swiss chard and basil.
“I pick it and make it into salad,” he said, adding that at home, he’s hoping to turn his brother’s fish tank into an aquaponics system.
To get his business off the ground, Peltier received support from Community Futures Central Interior First Nations in Kamloops. And he gives a big shout-out to Hilltop Subaru in Vernon, which donated funds to allow the system to be installed at Hillview at half the price.
Peltier has also set up systems at schools in Prince George, Mackenzie and Chetwynd with more to come. He is also happy to set up systems for home use.
For Peltier, it comes down to food security.
“It’s a big deal — I was talking to Jami Tonasket (chair of the Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement) and she said they have been doing lots of interesting things with aboriginal youth, with kids saying they want to be back in touch with their food; we are so disconnected with the food supply.
“When I set this up I do tutorials for the whole school. And I say to kids, your homework is to go grocery shopping with Mom and Dad and remove the labels and put them on a map and see where your food comes from; the amount of diesel fuel that is used to transport food is out of control and we need to take control of our food security.”