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Closed-Loop Agriculture Project Teaches Young Detainees


A Tallahassee woman is pushing the technical envelope when it comes to sustainable food production. She’s also using this leading-edge experiment as a science teaching tool.

Michelle Madison has named her enterprise “Farming the Future."

“One of the major projects Farming the Future is involved in is the STEM program that we installed at the Leon County Juvenile Detention Center,” Madison said, adding STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

That center is located off of West Orange Avenue on the city’s southwest side. It typically houses around 25 young people who have had minor run-ins with the law. And this is now Madison’s proving ground for an advanced closed-loop food production experiment based on aquaponics.

“An aquaponics system is a sustainable urban farming method,” she explained. “It’s where you raise fish and then use the fish water that’s rich in ammonia and you pump it into these media beds that allow beneficial nitrifying bacteria to colonize in them and convert that ammonia into nitrogen for the plants.”

She went on to elaborate on how the system keeps itself going.

“The plants absorb all of that wonderful nitrogen and then return fresh, clean water back to the fish so (it’s a) recirculating, sustainable eco-system that not only can you grow produce, but you grow protein as well. You get fish.”

Madison said the young people at the Juvenile Detention Center aren’t passive observers when it comes to this process.

“They run water quality tests and put on lab coats and go out there and measure the pH and ammonia and nitrite and nitrate levels, they learn the name of the beneficial nitrifying bacteria and system design and they love it.”

The young people are having so much fun with the project, Madison said, that they’re not even aware how much serious learning is taking place.

“And we use those as tools to teach STEM, agricultural and career education to the youth and it’s been such a success that we’re in the process of expanding to two other facilities. We have a program at Apalachee Elementary School where we have an aquaponics system and terrestrial garden and also at the Ghazvini Success Academy.”

Madison said the initial system at the Juvenile Detention Center has been so successful that it will soon be replaced with a much larger and more productive system.

“A 28-foot wide by 35-foot long greenhouse with a much larger aquaponics system inside and a larger terrestrial farm outside to be able to grow hundreds of pounds of produce and all of the produce that we grow will go into the cafeteria that we’ve been doing for the past year. It will go home with the parents (after visitation) and the juveniles once they leave and the rest of it will be donated to homeless shelters, battered women’s shelters (and) Second Harvest.”


Madison is also involved with a big upcoming international conference dedicated to women like herself who are involved in STEM enterprises.

“The Women in STEM Conference is set for September 11th and 12th and it’s in San Francisco, California. I’m very excited because I actually get to go,” she said.

The event also includes the Interdrome International Drone Conference and Exhibition. Madison is excited about attending for a number of reasons.

“It’s really important to me to be able to have an area and be able to discuss your ideas and share experiences with other women and be able to support each other and promote what they’re doing and break through all the barriers that we have in front of us.”

At the same time, Madison would like to make it possible for another STEM oriented-woman to have that experience, too.

“Farming the Future and Electronics Valley teamed up with the organizers of the conference to get a free conference pass and create a competition to help promote and support women in STEM; somebody who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to get to go to this kind of conference and get that networking and get that experience, give them an opportunity to do that.”

Madison said there’s a process to apply and be selected.

“So what we ended up doing was creating a small application for your name, country of origin – because it’s global – what STEM filed you’re in and then a video that shows your project or your expertise or what you’re working on. The judges will go through all the applicants and then pick the top entries and then we’ll open it up to the public and they’ll vote from there.”

Everything is available online.

“If you want to get more information on it or apply for the competitions, if you go on to Facebook and you type in ‘Farming the Future’ and you find that page, the posts at the top are the competition posts and you can go there and click on it and it will take you right to the competition page.”


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Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

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