What do college students do when they are bored? Most would play videogames, watch a movie, or search the Internet. Discover environmental studies major Paul Nickerson being bored and you’ll find him using fish to grow pineapples in his dorm room.
How does pineapple grow from fish?
Using fish to fertilize plants is known as aquaculture, a sustainable way of using hydroponics. Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil. Typically, hydroponic systems require five gallon buckets and just water, stones and a multitude of mixed chemicals.
Aquaculture replaces chemical use with fish; a fish tank holds the fish and their wastewater is pumped into the plants. The fish waste supplies the plants with nutrients just as well as chemicals would. Nickerson has built a dorm room aquaculture system, which currently grows pineapples.
“I really love having it here [at school] as a working prototype to show and educate other students,” Nickerson said. “Its also fun to have because it is a continual reminder of why I am here at school: to learn more about the different aspects that go into building such a system.”
Nickerson built a 320-gallon aquaculture system in his basement this J-Term. With the help of David Foster, professor of biology and environmental science, Nickerson hopes to replicate the system for the College’s greenhouse. The system would be able to serve as a model for students learning about aquaculture, especially as it pertains to missions in third world countries.
“Aquaculture can produce healthy crops in an area of nutrient depleted soil,” Nickerson said. “It is a wonderful tool for foreign ministry in countries with climate conditions that do not naturally support healthy agriculture.”
Hydroponics could be used in said climates, but typically third world countries struggle with the commitment hydroponic systems require for success.
Nickerson explained, “With hydroponics, chemicals must be mixed correctly and tested for every different plant. The chemicals are also very expensive. Fish are more easily accessible.”
Nickerson was first introduced to aquaculture on a two-week mission trip to Honduras during the summer before college, and ever since then he has wanted to build more systems. Being introduced to aquaculture also sparked Nickerson’s interest in other types of sustainable agriculture, such as vermiculture.
Vermiculture and the Community Garden
Nickerson hopes the College will start using vermiculture for composting.
“All vermiculture requires is a large bin of worms and a large composting bin,” Nickerson said. “The composting process happens so fast, that it doesn’t have a chance to rot, so it doesn’t smell and can be used indoors.”
Nickerson says that the College’s current composting system gets rid of pre-consumer waste. By using vermiculture, the College could also compost all post-consumer waste without having to truck anything off campus. Then the resulting soil could be used for the Grantham Community Garden.
For the community garden, Nickerson also serves as a vertical agriculture researcher. Vertical agriculture typically uses five gallon buckets to grow plants upside down.
“It is the same concept as the topsy turvey tomato plants seen on television,” said Nickerson. “Except we grow various herbs on the top of the buckets as well.” This is known as companion planting, something Nickerson also researches for the community garden. For example, it is common for people to grow basil with tomatoes in order to make the tomatoes taste better. Companion planting also refers to using different plants to keep bugs and animals away from plants, such as using geraniums to fend off beetles.
Sustainable agriculture is obviously one of Nickerson’s biggest passions. He always knew that he wanted a career involving environmental science.
“Growing up on my parents’ campground, I would frequently see the Department of Environment Protection (DEP) come run tests and I thought they were the coolest people in the world,” said Nickerson. “I always wanted to have a DEP magnet on my truck.” Although he does not necessarily want to work for the DEP anymore, Nickerson is still glad that his interest in the environment stayed with him.
As a sophomore, Nickerson is not quite sure what he wants to do with his degree. However, right after graduating he does hope to go back to Honduras to the area he just visited to switch hydroponic systems to more sustainable aquaculture systems. For his first year of college, Nickerson deferred his acceptance to Messiah to study at Word of Life Bible Institute in Argentina where many missionaries receive training. Through his experience in Argentina, Nickerson now speaks fluent Spanish. Through his experiences at Messiah College, he can comfortably build aquaculture systems. Each experience provided Nickerson to feel prepared to live in Honduras short-term to achieve his plans.
When boredom returns
With both vermiculture and aquaculture systems built for his dorm room, what does Nickerson do now when bored? Well, the Connecticut native enjoys fly-fishing and also writing. Nickerson maintains a blog dedicated to various forms of indoor agriculture from light bulb terrariums, indoor potatoes, and container garlic. There is never a dull blog post, a true reflection of Nickerson himself.
Story by Gina Menario `11. Photos by Scott Markley `12.