PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Berkshire County House of Correction has had something fishy going on for awhile now.
Community leaders and others got a chance on Wednesday to tour an inmate-run greenhouse that takes hydroponics — growing plants in a nutrient solution — to another level of sustainability by using fish waste as fertilizer. While producing both fish and produce, the facility also provides inmates with valuable skills that can be transferred to life outside of the jail.
Each of the 30 towns and both cities in Berkshire County have received food from the aquaponics lab, which donates its produce to food banks, shelters and community kitchens. More than 100,000 heads of lettuce and other vegetables have gone out into the community over the past 20 months.
"Our job is to put people back into the community a much better person when they leave than when they came in, and we do that by helping them and give them the skills, the resources, the capability, the skill set of staying on a positive structured lifestyle that they have inside these walls while they're incarcerated so that when they go back out, they can maintain that same positive structured lifestyle out in the community," Sheriff Thomas Bowler said.
"This program is one of those innovative programs that not only does that for the inmate population but is also a benefit and contributes back to our community."
The facility was completed in January 2020 and was funded privately through foundations, local businesses, gifts in kind, and individuals. It cost about $700,000 to build and get running. The pandemic delayed public celebration last year so the official ribbon-cutting was held on Wednesday and the two inmates working in the greenhouse gave tours.
Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito had been scheduled to attend but had to cancel after the Boston area was hit with power outages and flooding from Tuesday night's Nor'easter. Bowler was joined by both Mayors Linda Tyer of Pittsfield and Thomas Bernard of North Adams, state Sen. Adam Hinds, state Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier and Paul Mark, and the region's former senator, Benjamin Downing.
Hybrid tilapias produce a nitrogen-rich fertilizer to keep the greens growing. The waste is filtered from the 4,000-gallon tanks holding about 350 fish apiece. The filters generate the chemical reaction that creates the nutrient that flows into the two pools that grow 1,200 heads of lettuce a week. It's a constant turnover as matured greens are removed after 40-50 days as seedlings begin their journey across the pools and small fry grows into big fish as they cycle through different tanks.
The aquaponics greenhouse can grow more than a dozen different varieties of greens to supply the kitchen at the House of Corrections and food banks and charities. On Wednesday, the pools were a sea of green.
The aquaponics system is one of the few in the Northeast and is also unique as an educational and rehabilitation center for inmates. The corrections officers are trained along with the inmates to run the facility — checking pressure gauges and nutrient levels, cleaning and maintaining the building and equipment, feeding and caring for the fish, and harvesting and packing the produce.
The venture is just the latest sponsored by the sheriff's office to engage inmates at the House of Correction, including a garden and horses. The aquaponics lab is an opportunity for those who can't go out on work release but who can leave the secure facility to work in the gardens and grounds.
The idea is to give these men job skills and to learn to work as a team member, and instill a work ethic, responsibility, and pride in what they can accomplish. The greenhouse was started up by staff and then selected inmates were given the opportunity to join the effort.
Inmate Sam Wassilie has been involved with the program for more than a year and is the longest-running participant. This is a new skill for him and he claims to have been "bitten by the bug" of aquaponics, he said.
He explained that the lab is not just about producing lettuce and some fish, but about understanding how to create a self-sustaining system.
"I think that there's something really fundamental about getting back to something as basic as growing sustainable vegetables, getting your hands in the dirt and stuff," Wassilie said.
"Inside here, this is something that that's kind of new on the forefront, but something that has existed for thousands of years, it's pretty remarkable and it's not that difficult."
The idea for an aquaponics system was broached by retired Superintendent Jack Quinn five years ago after hearing about a nonprofit corrections program out of North Carolina, 100 Gardens.
The concept took off when Robin McGraw, president of the Berkshire Education and Correction Services, went to North Carolina to see the system in action and came back a convert.
The man who introduced Quinn to aquaponics was Sam Fleming of 100 Gardens, which brings aquaponics programs to schools, institutions, and communities of need. The two happened to be seated next to each other on a plane and talked about Fleming's organization and by the end of the flight, Quinn was sold — though he at first thought 100 Gardens was about growing cannabis.
"That individual Sam Fleming, who's sitting right here, let me tell you he is one of the greatest people I have ever met in my whole entire life," Quinn said.
"He does not cultivate marijuana or weed, he cultivates young minds in the Charlotte area, people that have been thrown away, kids that have been incarcerated. The organization he works with, 100 Gardens, the work they've done in Haiti, the work they've done in North Carolina, now really in different places all over the country, is just outstanding."
Fleming said aquaponics addresses three problems that the world is going to have to deal with in the next 30 years: a collapse of every major seafood species, running out of freshwater globally, and having 10 billion people on the planet.
"So how does aquaponics plan to this? Well, we feed fish to get them to market size, when we grow fish on land like we're doing here, we can stop the extraction of our wild seafood species and let our oceans rebound. Two, when we're using plants to filter out the water, we can reuse and recycle the water over and over again, saving and conserving our freshwater resources," he explained.
"And three: all the vegetables that are being pumped out can be used to feed these 10 billion people in the future, this is not just a cool way to grow food, it's actually a solution and it's an act of sustainability and conservationism."
Fleming added that the organization has also learned that aquaponics is a vehicle for making people better because it makes them more educated, engages them in a new way, and gives the gratifying sensation of eating food that was self-produced.
Many speakers at the ceremony credited McGraw for his work to make the program happen.
McGraw's support has positively impacted 100 Gardens as well, as it has grown from four schools and a juvenile corrections center to 13 schools and two correctional centers.
"We are going to touch a lot of lives," McGraw said after thanking everyone involved in the endeavor. "I think that you've seen that today and we're going to move forward doing that."
Bowler said the Berkshire delegation was invited in part because the program will be looking for assistance from the members down the road to have a sustainable future.
Hinds highlighted the fact that this program has not sought any state funds and said the work that has been done so far is "incredible."
Mark first met Bowler while working for Verizon nearly 20 years ago and said he is amazed by his innovative programming and extreme willingness to make sure things are done the right way.
"We all make mistakes, we all do dumb things, we all have barriers thrown in our face. The sheriff is working with people that have made some of those mistakes, to make sure that when they get out of here, they have the skills to ensure that they don't come back," he added.
"That they go out there and maybe they help others in the community avoid a place like this, and that they're doing something positive and hopefully sustainable and renewable into the future that's going to help our community and our state and even the world, and so what a great program, what a great innovation to be here, to be part of."
This article originally on the Berkshire Eagle.
By Dick Lindsay
PITTSFIELD — Berkshire inmates will soon learn how to grow fresh vegetables toward a fresh start for re-entry into the community and workplace.
The Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction has added a $500,000 aquaponics greenhouse that will help teach high-risk, high-need inmates the math, engineering, technology and science of growing lettuce, basil and other leafy greens, according to Capt. Robert "Robin" McGraw, a deputy sheriff with the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office.
Aquaponics combines the raising of fish — in this case tilapia — and growing plants, with the fish feces used to fertilize the plants in deep water beds.
McGraw, who manages the operation, said the greenhouse is another crucial part of the educational programs in place for decades at the countywide lockup.
"If we're not successful with this, [the inmates] are back on the streets doing drugs and getting in other trouble," he said.
The greenhouse has been operational since January, already producing 6,000 heads of lettuce, which McGraw and several corrections officers have harvested and initially distributed to local food pantries and charities.
"We've had nothing but compliments about the quality and freshness of the lettuce," he said.
The inmates aren't involved yet as they are confined to the house of correction because of the coronavirus pandemic. The greenhouse is located outside the perimeter fence on house of correction property.
Once the 60- by 72-foot greenhouse is certified to provide food to the jail and house of correction, McGraw says the majority of the produce and fish harvested will feed the inmates, with 15 percent going to the needy in the county.
McGraw began developing the greenhouse project five years ago with fundraising through the Berkshire Education and Corrections Service. The nonprofit arm of the house of correction was set up to establish and manage successful programs for inmates. He said several local foundations and business leaders contributed money and in-kind services to the greenhouse project.
He plans to add raised garden beds outside the greenhouse, growing a variety of vegetables. He also wants the public to visit on weekends to learn about aquaponics farming and how the greenhouse program benefits the inmates.
"The sky is the limit on what we can grow here," he said.
Dick Lindsay can be reached at email@example.com.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Fresh, healthy produce grown by students attending Myers Park and Garinger High Schools was donated to a local cause looking to address food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Bulb, a non-profit that has been working to provide local produce to food-insecure neighborhoods, is launching a pre-bagged food pickup starting on Wednesday.
India Solomon, Interim Executive Director of The Bulb Global Markets, says food insecurity is, many times, underlined and compounded during trying times such as the coronavirus outbreak.
“Food insecurity can be based on a lot of different barriers,” said Solomon. “Whether that’s financial, transportation, or just disability.”
The food is being stored at the Catawba Brewing Company located in Charlotte. The owners of the company have opened their doors to store the food in their abundant freezers and fridges, in light of having to remain closed for safety purposes.
Solomon says the introduction of healthy, nutritious foods couldn’t come at a more important time as people work to focus on staying healthy and keeping their immune systems strong.
“Fresh produce gives us energy and boosts our immune system with a variety of different antioxidants and vitamins,” said Solomon. “So it’s definitely important for our mental health, our self-care because we need to fuel our bodies to be able to handle the kids at home, to be able to handle the stressful work situations we’re in.”
Solomon also said the organization received fresh vegetables from Trader Joes. The Bulb was originally going to kick off their pop-up markets on Wednesday, but changed course to pre-bagged groceries in light of social distancing guidelines outlined in Governor Cooper’s executive order for North Carolina.
The first event will be held at the Salvation Army in Belmont beginning at 3:30 p.m. and they have another scheduled at the Catawba Brewing Co. on Thursday, beginning at 2:30 p.m.
Pittsfield — The Berkshire Education and Correction Services aquaponics training facility at the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office and House of Correction was getting ready to harvest its very first crop of lettuce when the county was crippled by the COVID-19 crisis.
What do you do with nearly 1,700 heads of lettuce in the middle of a health pandemic? You donate them.
Thanks to the efforts of Robin McGraw, deputy sheriff and president of Berkshire Education and Correction Services, Mark Lefenfeld of Berkshire Bounty, Brenda Petell of Berkshire United Way and BUW volunteer Nina Garlington, all of the lettuce was distributed among various organizations throughout Berkshire County over the course of several days.
It took three years of designing, building and finally planting the first seeds to yield the first crop. “When I finally held this lettuce in my hand, I said ‘I did it.’ And what really made me smile was that we were able to give it all to those that truly needed it and quickly,” said McGraw, a deputy with the sheriff’s office for six years.
“This was an unbelievable contribution in response to an immediate need in our community for food. Berkshire United Way was honored to work with Robin and Mark to make sure every last head of lettuce was distributed to food pantries and soup kitchens throughout the county. Ensuring children and families have access to healthy, local food is more critical than ever during this public health crisis,” said Candace Winkler, BUW CEO and president.
The plan right now is to continue to distribute lettuce to “those who truly need healthy food,” said McGraw.
According to McGraw, four years ago on a plane, Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction Superintendent John Quinn struck up a conversation with a teacher who started an aquaponics program at a juvenile detention facility in Charlotte, North Carolina. Quinn asked McGraw to facilitate a similar program, so, working collaboratively with 100 Gardens, the organization that oversees several aquaponics programs, he made it happen.
He worked with the nonprofit arm of the sheriff’s office to raise money and secure in-kind donations to get the facility built. This aquaponics facility is the first one to be built at a correctional facility in all of New England, drawing interest from several sheriffs throughout the state.
There are 300-350 tilapia, each swimming in four grow tanks, and the fish waste provides nutrients that help the lettuce grow. The facility has over 4,000 heads of lettuce floating in a bed, but since seeds are planted in intervals — it takes 45 days from seed to head — the lettuce is at different phases of growth.
McGraw added that the growing facility will be another educational component for the inmates, especially for the high-risk or high-need. The aquaponics facility will allow inmates to be outside, to learn new skills, and to focus on their work ethic and self-esteem. “Knowing you’re feeding someone else is also a cathartic thing,” he said. Inmates will commit to no less than a six-month STEM-focused curriculum run by corrections officers and fellow inmates.
There are still protocols to be put in place and this crisis to get past before the curriculum rolls out, but McGraw sees great potential with this program. “The sky’s the limit,” he said. He credits Sheriff Thomas Bowler and colleagues, his friends and intern Marco Anastasio for their support and collaboration in completing this project.
The facility produces lettuce 24/7, 365 days a year and is completely sustainable and off-the-grid. “Nothing will be wasted,” said McGraw. Beyond this immediate crisis, the plan is to use a portion of the lettuce to feed the inmates and the rest will help those in need.
Inmates are often looking for a second or third chance at getting their lives back on track and “this program is the best way to do that,” said McGraw. “It will bring us directly in contact with the community and the community will get to know what’s going on in here.”
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- A non-profit in Charlotte-area schools is bringing classroom lessons to life, while also helping others.
100 Gardens is a non-profit that teaches kids aquaponics, which is a method of farming that raises fish and vegetables together in one place.
Sam Fleming created 100 Gardens and says the goal is to make learning STEM classes fun for students.
"I barely graduated high school, I was very un-engaged in both math and science, because it wasn't real," Fleming says. "When you don't apply it, it doesn't stick. So what aquaponics does is allow for us to immerse ourselves in science, because we have an end product, which is we're going to grow food, we're going to address sustainability."
The program is in nine schools in the Charlotte area, including Pine Lake Preparatory in Mooresville.
Matthew Taboda, a senior at Pine Lake Prep, started the aquaponics club at his school. He says the club is showing students of all ages that the things they learn in the classroom have an impact on their life.
"We eat so much food on a daily basis, but it never really occurs to us how we actually get that food, and how it actually comes onto our dinner table," Taboda says. "So being able to expose students to how things are truly grown, and how things in the world are really produced is really a great, eye-opening experience."
At Pine Lake Prep, students are growing lettuce which is given to students and teachers.
Other schools sell the lettuce to local restaurants.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Wilson was with students, teachers and Principle Anthony Calloway of Walter G. Byers School in Charlotte where he was learning more about their aquaponics science experiment.
The students explained to Wilson how the aquaponics system works using nitrates produced by the fish in their fish tank to grow plants to provide food. The kids even gave us a look at how they transfer fish to the fish tank to provide the nitrates needed for growing the food.
Kerrie Lalli, K-8 STEM Lab teacher, talked with Wilson about the excitement of teaching science and engineering to the kids and seeing how their creativity comes alive as they learn.
Sam Fleming’s passion is clear when you meet him. Everything from sporting his non-profit’s T-shirt to the animated arm gestures when he speaks about the aquaponics process shows that teaching and building is what he truly loves. Aquaponics is a closed-loop cycle where fish in tanks produce all the necessary chemicals that plants need. The plants use the chemicals in the water and in return send clean water back to the fish. The two are connected, making water loss low and waste almost nonexistent. Thanks to Fleming’s work over the past eight years, his ambitions are finally coming to fruition with community events like the 2nd Annual Homegrown Tomato Festival.
Fleming is one of the co-founders of 100 Gardens, a non-profit organization created with the intention to send 100 aquaponic farms overseas to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Working side by side with founder and mentor, Ron Morgan, Fleming set out to install gardens in schools to provide a more hands-on learning experience for kids in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) system. The two built a prototype in Morgan’s backyard and the neighborhood kids loved it; they wanted to learn more about how this kind of growing works.
“Most kids graduate with pre-calc or calculus but have no idea how to change a tire, and there’s something fundamentally wrong about that,” said Fleming. He’s a product of the CMS school system and recounts not knowing how to write a check until he was 23. He strongly believes that kids need to learn real-life skills before graduation, and Fleming thinks aquaponics is a way to do that.
100 Gardens planted eight of their 12 aquaponics farms into schools around Charlotte and have worked with teachers to integrate the learning of aquaponics into science lesson plans. They’re now beginning to incorporate this into the classroom for engineering, marketing, and entrepreneurship classes. Fleming says they hope the students will even create brands for the vegetables and sell their crops by the Fall of 2019. At Myers Park High School, kindergarten through fifth grade classes and high school Earth and Environmental Science classes are currently utilizing this newly adapted vocational system. Building interdisciplinary experiences that has kids walking away with knowledge that’s applicable to real life is very important to Fleming. “It’s not about just the test, it’s about understanding what they’re learning,” he said.
The goal is now to have 100 aquaponic gardens in Charlotte. If 200 students per school participate that means 20,000 kids a year, and that’s 20,000 kids who better understand our future environmental issues. These will be students who know how to handle technology and practices that don’t damage the Earth, while providing necessary food and produce. In ten years, that’ll be an estimated 200,000 students impacting the future of sustainable gardening. Fleming firmly believes that this could transform a whole generation and Charlotte could become one of the most innovative agricultural education cities. He expresses how important this initiative is not only to him, but for our future, “this project isn’t a feel good project; this project is literally a strategy for the people of tomorrow.”
On July 28 at NoDa Brewing Company, the second annual Homegrown Tomato Festival is taking place thanks to these CMS students and their gardens. Last year at Midwood Country Club, attendance was expected to be 300, but it was nearly tripled. Support is growing for the cause, and plus, who doesn’t like a fresh tomato? Going in with higher expectations, Fleming is hoping 2,000 people will join them for their annual fundraiser. This year you can expect tough competition for the best tomato, delicious sandwiches, local bands, including the Hashbrown Belly Boys and School of Rock Charlotte, along with plenty of food vendors. Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett will tell the “History of the Tomato,” and different generations’ usage of it. You can also expect Dalton Espaillat from Sabor and Dan “The Pig Man” to be serving up collaborative tomato-themed dishes to compliment Tom’s talk. The festival’s proceeds help 100 Gardens and their agricultural aquaponics teaching in local schools and in Haiti. As you walk around the festival, you’re encouraged to try each local tomato growers’ produce and, if they win your vote, support them by leaving a donation in their jar. At the end of the day, the person with the most money is named “The 2018 #1 Backyard Tomato Grower” and gets a trophy, while the cash donations go back to 100 Gardens.
Fleming and Morgan have worked hard to help create a better curriculum and future for the students at local high schools through the science of aquaponics farming. All of their combined efforts and devotion for almost a decade are beginning to pay off, and thanks to the Homegrown Tomato Fest, you get to see a glimpse of the dedication and love they have committed to this project.
There are a lot of good things budding at Webb Street School in Gastonia. Lately, the lettuce is chief among them.
Over the past year, Charlotte-based nonprofit 100 Gardens has been helping the special needs school operate an aquaponics facility, allowing students there to farm fish, grow lettuce and harvest it for local restaurants. It’s a combination of aquaculture — farmed seafood — and hydroponics — growing plants without soil — in a sustainable loop.
On Saturday, the nonprofit and the school showed off all their hard work.
The facility at Webb Street has four tanks of tilapia and two long rows of plant beds that keep lettuce floating — and growing — above water. It’s tranquil, though hot, inside the greenhouse, but it provides work that can help students focus on repetitive tasks that could translate into employment.
“It’s therapeutic, and our goal for our kids is for them to have job skills when they graduate,” Principal Kelli Howe said.
There are about 150 students at the school, which serves both juveniles and adults up to age 22 with developmental disabilities.
The aquaponics facility started with a $30,000 grant from the Glenn Foundation, and 100 Gardens got it up and running. The school is able to harvest 60-75 pounds of lettuce each week.
“We sell at the farmers market if our harvest is big enough,” Howe said.
The lettuce is also sold to Pour House in downtown Gastonia and the Holy Angels-run Cherubs Cafe in Belmont.
Additionally, the facility serves as something of a lab for science students at local high schools.
“They can monitor our pH,” Howe said. “They can monitor if we need to add calcium.”
The tilapia are still growing, and state regulations prevent fish from being sold by the facility. The team can, however, host a fish fry as a fundraiser — something that’s in the works.
The whole system runs off of one water pump: The water is recycled through plant beds, helping the lettuce grow.
“The plants are actually using up the nutrients and the waste created by the fish, returning clean water back to the fish after they start growing,” 100 Gardens President Sam Fleming said. “Now we can farm the fish and we can recycle 100 percent of the water. It’s good for the environment and we’re growing a ton of new vegetables.”
Webb Street is the only school in Gaston County doing aquaponics.
“When they come in here, they’re learning how to be productive members of society, and they’re doing it with this cool new technology,” Fleming said. “This is about getting people skills, it’s about trades and it’s also about saving the planet.”
There are 12 aquaponics gardens run by the nonprofit in the state, and the organization wants to grow that to 100 — hence the name.
“In just 10 years time, that 100 gardens can influence 200,000 kids and save millions of gallons of water and all of the food it’s producing. So it’s almost a social engineering project in some ways. We’re trying to transform a whole generation of youth.”