Aquaponics program, brewery pair up to give Slippery Rock students life skills

Farm & Dairy

The Growing Together Aquaponics Program sprouted from several other programs at Slippery Rock University

Kirkland Campbell harvests chives for from a media bed Nov. 11 in one of the Growing Together Aquaponics systems, housed in North Country Brewing Company's canning facility, in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.

Kirkland Campbell harvests chives for from a media bed Nov. 11 in one of the Growing Together Aquaponics systems, housed in North Country Brewing Company’s canning facility, in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. (FARM AND DAIRY) — Tucked in the back corner of a warehouse, surrounded by beer kegs stacked to the ceiling, are two tanks of fish and trays of plants sitting under bright lights.

This is the home of the Growing Together Aquaponics Program, in the North Country Brewing Company canning facility. At its core, it’s a pre-employment transition program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. But it’s grown to be so much more.

For Lucas Chamberlain, one of the program’s participants and employees, it’s a calm, relaxing environment to learn and grow.

“Back at school, it was always chaos,” he said. “This is joy for me.”

For Dale Daugherty, chef at the North Country Brewing Company taproom, it’s a source of fresh, tasty ingredients for his meals. He swears the flavor of the vegetables he gets from the aquaponics program is better than anything he gets in stores or from other purveyors.

“I think it’s the care they put into it,” he said.

Putting down roots

The Growing Together Aquaponics Program sprouted from several other programs at Slippery Rock University meant to help high school and college students with disabilities transition to life and work outside of school.

Part of these programs was vocational training. It’s an essential part of transition programs, said Marena Toth, operations director for the aquaponics program

“Many times students need time to learn, and jobs often don’t want to take that extra time to train people with disabilities,” she said.

Bob Arnhold, a professor in the adaptive physical activity program, heard about aquaponics from a friend. He didn’t know much about how it all worked, with the fish and the plants, but it seemed like a good opportunity for his transition students.

“I don’t have any farm background,” he said. “It was all based on preparing students for a life after school.”

The only problem was, he needed space, about 1,000 square feet of it, to put up an aquaponics system. There was nothing that big available on campus.

On a whim, he approached the owner of North Country Brewing Company, Bob McCafferty, with the idea of hosting the system.

“Before I even finished my first sentence, he was all excited and on board,” Arnhold said. “He said he had room at his canning facility down the road.”

The company has a bar and restaurant on Main Street, in Slippery Rock, as well as a large production and canning facility just outside of town that is transformed Thursday-Saturday into a taproom where people can eat and drink among the brewing and canning equipment. The brewing company also revitalized the historic Harmony Inn, in Harmony, Pennsylvania, about 20 south of Slippery Rock.

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