Farming fish is going swimmingly for the FFA at Valmeyer High School.
Thousands of tilapia and hundreds of bluegill and catfish reside in long concrete raceways and giant tubs next to the agriculture classroom and in the school greenhouses.
“The hybrid bluegill we raise from fingerlings,” said FFA member Luke Franke, 18, lifting a stiff mesh cover off the top of a round blue tub the size of a backyard hot tub. Silver fish streaked through the water as he tried to swipe up a few in his net. During a May sale at the school, bluegill and catfish, kept in a separate tank, are sold to people who want to restock their ponds.
“We buy them in October about 6 inches long,” said FFA adviser and ag teacher Howard Heavner of the bluegill. “They grow to about 12 inches. There’s a lot of water around here, lots of lakes and ponds, so people want them.”
Tiny tilapia are bundled up in water-filled plastic bags of 100 and shipped to other schools that want to raise fish. A special permit is required to buy and sell tilapia.
“We ship to Indiana, Texas, New York — 10 to 20 high schools around the country,” said Howard. “When we first started, we thought we’d raise them to full grown, but it cost too much.”
Luke and two other seniors, Ryan Nabers, 17, and Zach Koonce, 17, are the go-to guys responsible for organizing the efforts to keep the finned inhabitants alive and well until all but the breeder fish are out the door this school year. Senior Alicia Biffar, 17, helps handle the big sale in May.
All 82 agriculture students have jobs to do, from scrubbing down slimy tub and raceway walls to feeding, tracking, catching, sorting and separating fish.
“The freshman get to clean the tanks out,” said Zach, grinning like the upperclassman he is. It has to be done once or twice a year and involves draining water, shifting fish from one place to another and getting wet to get the job done.
Luke: “We all started doing it. You work your way up.”
The trio said some of the technical aspects of keeping the fish thriving require special attention.
“You have to make sure the pH (acidity-alkalinity level) is right in the tanks and raceways,” said Ryan.
Luke: “And make sure the air lines are open.” Fish need a certain amount of oxygen in the water to survive.
“One time the power went out and we had a lot of dead fish,” Zach said.
Out in a 30-by-60-foot greenhouse, aquaculture blends with the horticulture program. Howard pointed to a giant blower. It not only circulates air, but forces oxygen through plastic tubing into three concrete-block raceways that run the length of the greenhouse. On top of the concrete raceways are trays filled with geraniums and other plants being readied for sale.
Raising fish has been a tradition at Valmeyer since 1988, when Howard, now 54, began the program as a learning and hands-on agriculture and business experience for the students. He will retire in May. Valmeyer was named the Outstanding High School Agriculture Program 2014-2015 by the FFA.
“I saw a display at the Du Quoin Fairgrounds and that gave me the idea,” he said. He sought help from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, “and they consulted a lot at the beginning.”
There was a definite learning curve.
“In the beginning, we were raising them in trash cans,” he said, laughing. “We buried a fair number of fish at first.”
The Great Flood of 1993 changed the program considerably. With the river-bottom town washed away by the Mississippi, Valmeyer rebuilt itself up on the bluffs. That included constructing an elementary and high school building that opened in 1996.
It provided a unique opportunity for Howard.
“The superintendent gave me a notepad and said, ‘Draw out what you want.’”
In the new Valmeyer school on top of the bluffs, Howard got a big ag shop with room for tanks and raceways he helped build, a section devoted to welding and access to the outside and what would become greenhouses.
“For a high school ag program, it’s like having livestock, except fish don’t take up as much space or cause as much mess,” he said in a 1999 story.
While selling the fish brings in revenue, it goes right back into upkeep, supplies, food.
“We make enough to pay for feed and maintain the system,” Howard said, adding that state and federal grants also help.
Superintendent Eric Frankford said the program “allows the students to do things they might not ordinarily do.”
He pointed out that the FFA and its programs allow teens, most of whom are not from farm families, to work and compete as a team, gain business experience, learn about time management and accountability.
“I think the life-skills they learn are amazing — and they carry over” once a student is out of school, said Frankford.
Luke will study construction management and Zach agriculture this fall at Southeast Missouri State University, while Ryan will attend Ranken Technical School to learn diesel technology. Alicia sees Murray State University in Kentucky in her future, with studies in ag business and economics.
Standing in a greenhouse dropping food pellets in a raceway, the three guys said they liked not only working with fish but enjoyed a good fish fry, too.
Howard, who also happens to be Valmeyer’s mayor, admits his tastes run in another direction.
“I’d rather have a rib-eye.”