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Brookfield East student's aquaponics project gives his school a garden

Sept. 2, 2014

Brookfield East High School has another special feature.

An aquaponics garden was completed this summer after many months and hundreds of hours of work.

Zachary Kehoe, who graduated from Brookfield East this year, learned about aquaponics from a course he took during the spring semester at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"After that, I pretty much spent my time building this aquaponics system. I was able to get most of the two grow beds and the tank built," Kehoe said. "Then over the summer I was able to get it running, you know, getting the water chemistry correct and getting things growing."

The garden consists of 14 different crops ranging from basil and lemongrass to carrots and cantaloupe. Kehoe says that whatever is harvested from the garden can be used in the school's cafeteria and should save Brookfield East some money.

"It will be organic too, there's nothing coming in from the outside. No chemicals," Kehoe said. "If we get the best yield it should be hundreds of dollars (in savings)."

The cost of maintaining the system should also be somewhat minimal, Kehoe says. The aquaponics system is largely self-sustaining thanks to a tank full of fish who act as a key link in the growing process.

"Fish waste is ammonia. That gets filtered into tanks with bacteria which turns the ammonia into nitrites and then nitrates. The nitrates are then used by the plants," Kehoe said. "And the plants create oxygen which is pumped back down to the fish."

While the school itself could benefit financially from the aquaponics system, there was unfortunately no funding available for Kehoe's project. Despite that, science teacher Noah Kaufman took it upon himself to personally fund the garden, footing the eventual total of $3,500.

"He gave me all the revenue to build this, totally out of his pocket," Kehoe said. "I had the knowledge, but I couldn't have done it without him."

For Kaufman, offering financial assistance to one of his students for a worthwhile educational cause wasn't a hard decision.

"I was very excited (about the project). I was happy to go along with it," Kaufman said. "Three thousand five hundred dollars isn't cheap. If I wasn't excited, I wouldn't have done it."

Kehoe has known that he wanted to do something with aquaponics for the school for years. His recent course at UWM helped give him the ability to finally act on that desire.

"I really like (studying) life. Ever since my freshman year I've been experimenting with gardening and aquaponics. This is the future of growing," Kehoe said. "I've put so much time into this, probably 150 (hours). I just really like learning about the natural sciences."

Kehoe is now at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, having departed last Thursday. He plans on continuing to study in connection with his love of science; however, he isn't sure what he will major in.

"I just know I want to do something with science. I'm not sure what yet," Kehoe said.

Kaufman says that aquaponics was not only an educational opportunity for Kehoe, but will now become one for all students.

"I think it's great because it's going to be a resource for all of our students," Kaufman said. "We're in the process of making an actual class that would focus on greenhouse management."

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