DADE CITY — Connor Harm, a well-versed 14-year-old tour guide, spouts knowledge as he leads a visitor through the workings of a 480-gallon blue fish tank that is home to about a dozen tilapia.
The tank is a hands-on learning project — an educational centerpiece that takes up some considerable space in the back of Tracy Weaver's agriculture classroom at Centennial Middle School.
Here, Connor says, is where students like him tend to the business of raising freshwater fish.
Running a business sometimes means learning as you go — in this case, measuring fish, testing the water's pH levels, actually watching the life cycle of a fish in real time, and finally, getting a taste of the farm-raised tilapia at one of two fish frys held for students at the end of each semester.
"It's a classroom re-circulation system," Connor said, explaining how water flows from the tank, through a clarifier, then a bio-filter, to the hydroponic garden, out of a hose and back into the tank. "All these plants are being raised in water. Can you believe that?"
"Waste not/want not," is a pretty good motto to follow, so in the process of raising fish, students make use of a by-product they call "Foop" that provides nourishment for an adjacent hydroponic garden and the soil-based plants growing on a rack of shelves under fluorescent light.
The term "Foop" is a blend of "fish" and "poop."
As it turns out, freshwater tilapia produce an ample amount of waste. Three times a week students take turns cleaning the tank, draining buckets of murky water which is then used to water and fertilize the soil-based plants. The rest is bottled up in gallon jugs and sold for 25 cents a gallon. Proceeds from the sales go to buying supplies such as an electronic feeder, fish food and new fingerlings that, lest they fall prey to the larger fish, start out in a smaller, 200-gallon classroom tank.
"We use Foop to make all these plants flourish," Connor said as he tended to the lush African violets sprinkled in pink and purple blooms. "Without these nutrients they would be puny."
Customers are typically faculty members. Some get a complimentary bottle of Foop with the $5 purchase of one of the houseplants for sale — African violets, pothos and ferns, to name a few.
It was during a learning unit on marketing that Connor became motivated to build a bigger client base. The banner ads shown on the classroom television sets were good for reminding students and faculty about the Foop business, but Connor wanted to go further. He put a call into the local newspaper with the thought that an updated story about his school's aquaculture program would help.
In 2009, Weaver launched the classroom fish farm with $2,700 in teaching grants and 10 Nile tilapia fingerlings purchased from Morning Star Fisherman, a nonprofit hatchery and training center in Dade City with a mission to fight world hunger.
The student-led business has survived, even through recent budget cuts and the economic downturn. But Connor and classmates such as Shane Leach, 13, would like to see more rapid growth.
The product is very good, they say, and should appeal to casual and avid gardeners alike.
"I can't believe we only sell this stuff for a quarter a gallon," Shane said as he topped off a jug of Foop to add to others lined up during a Tuesday morning cleaning session .
"Have you seen how much they charge for fish emulsion at the stores?" Connor asked. "I looked and the concentrated fish emulsion they sell can be $40. So we give you less concentrated for a very large decrease in price. I think it's worth it, don't you?"