After spending five days this spring studying aquaponics at the University of Arizona, Jessica Foster, a junior in horticulture with a minor in wildlife and fisheries science, and greenhouse manager Scott DiLoreto are developing the first aquaponic system at Penn State.

Aquaponics differs from hydroponics in that it doesn’t rely on the addition of nutrient salts to the water to grow plants. Instead, aquaponics utilizes an integrated fish-culture and plant-propagation system that relies on a symbiotic relationship between fish and plants.

DiLoreto added that he believes aquaponic systems go hand in hand with increased interest in greener, sustainable agricultural practices and organic and locally grown foods. “Aquaponics is the coupling of two biological systems,” he explained. “The plants feed off the fish and the fish purify the water for the plants, so at the end you have two products, fish and plants. It’s a much more natural process.”

Foster, who hopes to start her own aquaponics business after she graduates, felt that the most important lesson she learned from the University of Arizona course was that developing an aquaponic system is entirely feasible. DiLoreto agreed. “We’re seeing the beginning of a trend,” he said. “If we’re successful, I think it’s definitely something the University will want to continue.”

Current plans for the Penn State aquaponics system include using two 300-gallon tanks to grow tilapia, and a large hydroponics area where basil, lettuce, mustard greens, and micro-greens will be grown. This fall, Foster and several other students will earn independent study credits for their work on the aquaponics project, supervised by associate professor Robert Berghage.