SEBRING - So far, it's been a scholastic-business partnership that's gone swimmingly well.
Since June 2013, pupils at Cracker Trail Elementary School have been helping raise a variety of pet fish that are eventually added to one of two aquaculture production farms in Sebring and in Venus.
In cooperation with Bullock Farmns, a diversified livestock production farm dealing primarily in aquaculture production, most of the school's approximately 650 pupils are lending a hand in raising fish from spawning, growing and on into bigger tanks.
In classrooms from kindergarten to fifth grade and auxiliary school rooms, fish tanks from 10 to 55 gallons are teaming with schools of tropical fish, some ranging from a few millimeters long upward to a centimeter or larger. In those classes, once fish spawn, children monitor lighting, check water temperature and quality, and most importantly, feed the fish throughout the week.
In addition to learning to care for another living entity, the idea is to instill an interest in aquaculture and farming while pupils are learning lessons in science, healthcare, elementary physics and responsibility.
The Cracker Trail aquaculture program is being led by Rob Bullock, who owns and operates Bullock Farms with his sister, Renee Gatlin.
The aquaculture program was conceived by fifth-grade teacher and school aquaculture sponsor Ian Belanger and school principal Richard Demeri. The idea came up at an Avon Park Jaycees meeting where they are members and were discussing ways to build leadership skills in children at the school. The idea, said Belanger, was to build a program that had continuity from summer school and on into the fall and remaining school year.
During a visit Wednesday at the school, Bullock met with Belanger. There, they checked the tanks for cleanliness, looked to see if there were any new births and helped students identify what fish were spawned. Belanger said he and Demeri were looking for a school-wide project that the children would do 99 percent of the work.
"We can go home at two one day and come back the next day and there's a lot more fish in there. I have one student that's an expert at finding the fish," said Belanger. "I saw this as a way to get back into agricultural education. Having the opportunity to show my passion in agriculture was my motivation.
Among the tropical fish bred in six fish tanks at Cracker Trail's "fish farm" are ornamental koi, angel, mollies and platies - all fish that bear their fry rather than hatching. In addition, rhino pleco algae "sucker fish" are used to help keep tanks clean and fish species names include "Mickey Mouse" platys and "dalmation" and "black" mollies.
Fish that outgrow the school tanks are taken to Bullock Farms - about 15 were taken out last weekend - and used as breeder fish, said Bullock, 29, who grew up near Lake Istokpoga. Also a part-time emergency medical technician, he said it took about a semester for pupils and staff to get everything - temperature, feeding, space and priorities - in balance.
"They're learning leadership; they're learning to put first things first. They're caring for something and it's 100 percent the kids. I've done nothing but provide the opportunity," he said.
The start-up cost for the aquaculture project was about $950 to buy tank equipment, food and to pay Bullock for his time to set up the system and train staff. The nature-based project joins Cracker Trail's other "out-of-the-box" life science, hands-on lessons learned in the school's butterfly garden and along a one-mile nature trail.
One fifth-grade pupil, Walker Dressel, 10, got so enthusiastic about the project he visited the school in his free time a few times to make sure the fish were fed. A student in Belanger's class, he said he feeds the fish and takes turns with his classmate, Jake Stephens, 11, to make sure the tank lights are turned on and off at the right times. He got so caught up in the project, he received a one and one-half gallon fish tank of his own for his room.
"I'm learning a lot about responsibility and finishing a job. I think it's fun and like just sitting and watching the fish in my free time," he said,
Florida supplies the United States with about 60 percent of domestically-raised tropical fish. According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Florida aquaculturists produce the greatest variety of aquatic species of any state and in 2007, U.S. aquaculture sales during 2007 were over $1.4 billion, with Florida ranking seventh in total sales.
The Bullock Farms Aquaculture program started in a garage and backyard and has expanded.