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Students at Neligh-Oakdale are gaining first-hand experience of the farm-to-fork process, supplying the school’s lunch program with fresh lettuce.
Through a grant from Farm Credit Services, N-O agricultural educator Kali Bohling was able to purchase two grow towers for her students.
“We were fortunate enough, I learned right before school, that we were the recipient of a $2,000 grant through Farm Credit Services that allowed us to purchase two grow towers — one that we keep here in the ag room, and one is upstairs outside of the FCS classroom,” Bohling said.
A grow tower is a hydroponic growing system with a basin of water at the bottom and a pump that circulates the water throughout the tower, Bohling explained.
Bohling first heard about grow towers through professional development opportunities for agriculture instructors. Since she was looking for a way for her students to have more hands-on opportunities, and greenhouses are costly, she thought the grow towers were a great opportunity.
“Lettuce is all we’ve grown this year. You can grow all sorts of herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, pretty much anything you can grow in a typical garden, you can grow in a grow tower,” Bohling said.
So far, all of the lettuce grown in the grow towers has been used for the school’s lunch program.
“About every three weeks or so, once it got going, we’re able to take two large bowls to the lunch program,” Bohling said. “They don’t buy it or anything, we just donate it to the lunch program.”
In the future, Bohling wants to expand the selection of plants in the grow towers.
“Next semester, we’re going to experiment with some other things a little bit,” she said. “We’ll still have lettuce to be able to provide lettuce for the lunch program. I think around the bottom couple of rings, we’ll try some vining stuff.”
Bohling explained that when plants are grown inside, the students will have to shake the plants to pollinate them since there are no pollinators.
“We’ll see if we can get fruit to grow. I talked to a couple of other teachers, and it doesn’t always work very well, so that’s where it’s going to kind of be an experiment,” Bohling said. “We’ll just see what happens with it, but we will still have lettuce. We’ll likely try to venture into the cucumbers and maybe some cherry tomatoes next spring.”
Bohling says she uses the grow towers as a talking point in many of her classes.
“I really talk farm-to-fork, and I teach that in junior high, so that was good for that,” she said. “Right now, our society and consumers are getting more and more removed from farming operations, so just informing students where their food comes from - it’s raised by a producer somewhere, it is then harvested, taken to a processing facility, it’s packaged and distributed to a market where you can then buy it.”
“A lot of my kids in junior high, to be quite honest, if you ask them where their food comes from, there’s a handful that will just say the grocery store. They don’t realize that there’s somebody that is producing it or growing it somewhere, and all of the steps it goes through to get to their plate at home.”
Because not everyone can work at the grow towers at once, a few students do most of the upkeep and harvesting of the lettuce in the towers.
“It’s been kind of some of my seniors,” Bohling said. “Cole Belitz harvests it quite a bit, and then the last couple times if he’s gone, some of my high school seniors at the end of the day will harvest it.”
Belitz said the tower helps provide learning opportunities.
“It produces lettuce for lunch and teaches responsibility and patience,” Belitz said.
Senior Kristen Snodgrass also does a lot of work with the grow towers.
“About every other day, I check the pH levels in it and try to keep it balanced as much as possible,” Snodgrass said. “I just kind of check over and make sure everything’s running smoothly. I help harvest every three weeks and take it down to the lunchroom. I’ve learned there’s a lot that goes into growing plants.”
Snodgrass also fills the grow tower in the classroom with water and a mineral blend solution about once a month.
Currently, the FCS classes are taking care of the second grow tower located outside of their classroom.
“We had talked last year, and she (FCS teacher Kim Scarborough) was aware that I was writing this grant, and I had said, ‘You know, if I get two, we can work together,’” Bohling said. “It could be something in the future where if I had a plant science class, we would manage them both, but for right now, they have theirs upstairs.”
Each grow tower is about 6 feet tall and can hold about 28 plugs. They contain seven rings, including an extension pack that Bohling purchased with the grant.
The towers also have lights that hook on top and a basin to fill with water. The towers are also on wheels, making them easy to maneuver around the classroom.
“Next semester, we’ll see how it goes,” Bohling said. “I know lettuce grows really well, and that’s something we can use directly in the kitchen.”