BROOKSVILLE — The 20 young scientists crowded around the large blue tank on an out-of-the-way concrete slab just outside Pine Grove Elementary School.
Their teacher walked up, opening his hand. The science club moved in tightly.
"They were supposed to give us fingerlings," science teacher Doug Poteet said, revealing the palm-sized Blue Nile tilapia in his hand. "Look how big these guys are."
"Wow," the kids gasped together.
The students, after naming the striped tilapia "Dinner," added it to the tank, soon to be joined by about 200 others.
But these are no ordinary fish.
They are a key part of a massive effort this year to expand the elementary school's gardening operations with the goal of providing students a regular helping of homegrown fruits and vegetables.
But it's also part of something grander.
"We do believe that each school — elementary, middle and high school — has enough room, enough space, to design and implement and maintain sustainable food for the kids that are there," Poteet said.
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Poteet, 47, has worked Pine Grove's gardens for nine years and looks the part of a consummate gardener.
He wears his goatee long and scruffy and matches it with a well-worn straw hat.
He bubbles when talking about this year's gardening prospects. He'll talk your ear off about the rapid rate at which tilapia convert food to meat. The challenges of keeping fish alive in winter. The importance of nitrogen. Not that that's a bad thing.
Down the school's main open corridor, students grow everything from thornless blackberries and muscadine grapes to two types of blueberries and all manner of fall vegetables — squash, pumpkins, collards, beans.
This year they've increased operations, adding raised beds and getting teachers and community organizations to help tend small gardens. They've revived their hydroponic stackers.
"Finally, enough people have seen the effort," said Poteet. They're saying 'Whoa, I'm going to support this.' "
That involvement is good, he notes, because there are few district dollars for such projects. The sustainable gardens at Pine Grove are supported solely this year by donations and volunteers, including Dwayne Ross, a parent whom Poteet gives a lot of credit.
The students have also enlarged their most innovative method of gardening.
It's called aquaponics.
Tilapia, in this case, fertilize the water, which is then circulated into a tank, where plants pull nitrogen out of the water. It's then recycled back to the fish, clean, where the process begins anew.
"It's a perfect symbiotic relationship," Poteet said.
On a recent day, the science class peered into the large blue tanks arranged in tiers, looking for the fish. They marveled at the rows of budding lettuce that floated in Styrofoam containers. They touched the bobbing duckweed, examined the pumps and watched the water bubble from tank to tank in a simple, yet graceful organic gardening system.
"I think it's really awesome," said fifth-grader Taylor O'Haver. "It's the circle of life."
Students will play a big role.
They will do everything from weeding to planting to diagnosing problems. If a bug starts attacking a particular vegetable, it will be their job to figure out how to stop it. They will also monitor the fish and tend to a few rabbits and chickens.
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Poteet wants to have a school-grown salad bar for fifth-graders ready for the school's lunchroom by Halloween or Thanksgiving.
"My goal is to make it available as much as possible," he said.
They will stagger the crops so each will be ready for harvest at different times. He hopes to expand the salad bar to other grade levels this school year, though he admits some of the logistics have yet to be worked out.
Eventually, he sees this spreading across the school district.
"We hope to be the first pilot program to show that it can be done," he said. "I'm more than willing to share the do's and the don'ts so that other schools can get up online quicker."
Poteet said the plan will take willing administrators who are on board. And everyone from faculty members to custodial crews will have to be believers.
"You need at least one or two teachers who have a heart and a passion," he said. "It takes a lot of time to get it up and running."
More than just being a school project, Poteet wants to see students take it to their home.
That's why they chose the motto:
"From our school yard to your back yard."
Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected].