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Growing pineapples in Grantham

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.

Why agriculture? 
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.

12 Responses to “Growing pineapples in Grantham”

  1. Craig H. Says:

    Very informative article, Gina! I see a very ‘productive’ future for Mr. Nickerson.

  2. Gina Menario Says:

    Thank you Paul for being so helpful while I was writing this article!

  3. Kim Yunez Says:

    Quiero saber si las piñas saben a fruta o pesado (o a posho).

    ¿Qué pensás vos de mi pregunta?

  4. Nate Tyson Says:

    Ah Paul, I love reading about your work in aquaponics instead of studying for finals! Keep up the good work!

  5. Danika Foster Says:

    YES! So glad to see this on Messiah’s home page 🙂 Way to goooo Paul.
    Profesora!! Me dío mucho alegría ver su comento acá!

  6. Adam Arditi Says:

    This is great!!!! I did not realize the difference between hydroponic and and aquaculture systems. This is all very inspiring and hopeful for our campus.

    Thanks for the great article.

  7. Lisa Barnshaw Says:

    Did you mean “Word of Life Bible Institute” rather than “World of Life Bible Institute”?

  8. Keane McCullum Says:

    Way to go, Paul!

  9. Dan Gower Says:

    Great to see students working in this important field. I may be mistaken, but I believe the system referred to here would be more correctly termed “Acuaponics” which is the raising of fish and plants together, utilizing the fish waste water to fertilize the plants. I would love to see more about it. God bless.

  10. Kinley Zook Says:

    Promise you won’t turn the whole garden into aquaponics! Some of us like the dirt between our toes. All the same, I’m glad the garden is in good hands this summer.

  11. Kornelia Hartwig Says:

    Hello, with interest I watched the news yesterday. It’s very good of you to pick up on hydroponics. It’s actually a growing backyard or garage hobby activity with it’s own magazines, etc. Disney in Florida has being using it for years for their restaurants. One of the owners, Matt Zeigler, worked there for a few years before coming back to PA to help run Zeigler Bros. We have one customer, Marvesta, in Maryland who grow shrimp in a closed system. So, if you’re ever interested in visiting with them you can reach them at Guy Furman cell 443-271-9387. I’m sure they’ll give you a tour.
    By the way, we sell Tilapia feed and we’re just 30 minutes down the road from you in Gardners, PA.
    Good luck with your venture. And here is a link to a website for a mission in Haiti. They grow Tilapia there and give away fingerlings to start more farms for people.

    God bless. Kornelia

  12. Fullbloom Hydroponics Blog Says:

    Love to see hydroponics being used in creative ways!…

    Its amazing to see what a little creativity can accomplish……