Quick shipment

Barron High School ag students Summer Hammann and Cody Gander package harvested hydroponic lettuce into gallon Ziploc bags. Photo contributed

When it was learned that a $5,000 hydroponic garden (growing plants without soil) could be installed free of charge last February, the Barron Area School Board approved, and a new asset was added to the high school agricultural science classroom.

Just four months later, the garden has already produced two lush crops of leaf lettuce, which were donated to the Barron Food Pantry. Not only had the garden enriched the diets of hundreds of area residents, but it also offered some valuable training for her students, according to Kristin Hanson, agricultural science instructor and FFA advisor.

A donation from the Marshfield Clinic Health Systems center for community health advancement, the system, manufactured by Appleton, Wis.-based Fork Farms, Inc., was offered to Barron High School “to create awareness of the importance of healthy food for good health,” said Emily Brunstad, Marshfield Clinic Health System’s community benefits coordinator.

Other goals: “supply nutritious greens to local food pantries, meal programs and schools,” Brunstad added. “By placing them in schools, it creates a learning opportunity for students.”

That’s exactly what happened in her classroom as winter gave way to spring and the hydroponic garden produced two crops of leaf lettuce, Hanson said Thursday, June 24, 2021.

“At a retail price of $5,000, this kind of equipment is, obviously, not in our budget,” she said. “But when we were approached by Marshfield Clinic Health System, we decided to accept.”

After the School Board approved the idea in February, the system was set up and operated by the winter and spring trimester agriculture classes, including students in the Plants, Woods, & Wildlife, Landscaping, and Animals, Leadership and You courses.

Students built the unit at the ag classroom.

“All of it comes prepackaged,” Hanson said. “You get the kit, a list of procedures and instructions, and, after it’s built, a list of tasks and things that need to be checked each week.”

Students were assigned as teams to check chemical content, test hydroponic nutrients and acidity (“potential of hydrogen” or ph) levels.

From the time the seedlings were embedded in growing “cubes” in the vertical panels, it took from 21 to 28 days to grow each crop, she added.

“Our first harvest was May 5, and the second was June 7,” Hanson said.

“Each harvest produced 30 to 40 packages, about half a pound in each bag, or 20 pounds of lettuce at a time,” she added.

Not only did the tasks provide some valuable training for the ag students, it allowed them to take charge of the project and see each crop through from start to finish, she added.

“It’s a conversation piece,” Hanson said. With its tall, vertical panels and bright growing lights, “it illuminates the whole classroom,” she said. “Folks would drive by the classroom at night and ask us, ‘what IS this?’ Some schools display their units in more public places, but for us, it was a classroom project. And we felt the location was more food-secure, too.”

Since it couldn’t generate enough of a harvest to fill the needs of the school’s food service program, the unit’s two lettuce crops were donated to the Barron Food Pantry, Hanson said.

The lessons learned in the classroom might lead to more learning opportunities for her students, she added.

“We could add field trips to (hydroponic) producers next year,” Hanson said.

One possibility: Superior Fresh, a large hydroponic operation near Black River Falls.

“They rear Atlantic salmon and trout, on one side of the operation, and the water from the fish operation goes underground and is used with their (hydroponic) nutrients,” she said. “If you’re driving at night near the Alma Center/Hixton exit on I-94, and you see a purple glow in the sky near the freeway, that’s their operation.”

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