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Students get taste of hydroponic farming

R. R. Branstrom | Daily Press “You guys are rockin’ it,” said Dr. Kim Smith Kolasa, who noted that the produce grown by the Bark River-Harris students included some of the largest lettuce leaves she’d ever seen.

HARRIS — After a five-week period during which Bark-River Harris students used mobile hydroponic farming technology to germinate seeds and grow lettuce within the confines of Mr. Allen Botwright’s science classroom, the high schoolers made their first harvest of a large crop of lettuce.

Through grants awarded by the Superior Health Foundation, which aims to assist with research and education surrounding health in the Upper Peninsula, 12 schools in the U.P. were provided with Flex Farms, fully-contained hydroponic grow units from Wisconsin-based Fork Farms. The wheeled unit, which is shaped somewhat like an octagonal prism when closed, stands a little less than six feet tall and has a vertical hinge so that it can close around its LED lights and maximize efficiency. When opened, each half displays walls with holes through which produce grows. The base holds water, and tubes and pipes carry water — and added nutrients — over the plants’ roots, which are on the back sides of the walls.

At Bark River-Harris High School, students in Botwright’s sixth hour environmental science class got to break in the vertical farm to grow Green Star lettuce.

“We made a decision as a class to plant only one type of produce at this point in time,” said Botwright. “None of us really knew what we were doing — including me. And the recommendation of Fork Farms is to plant the seeds that have the hygroscopic coating on them. It absorbs water, and that helps germination — and they’re they’re larger.”

After the seeds were planted, a few students from the class were assigned to their care, which included measuring pH and adding nutrients so that the readings obtained from water samples fell within given parameters. Tests were done every school day.

Dr. Kim Smith Kolasa from Fork Farms was at the high school on the day of the harvest to see the results and to relate her own experiences to the class. Previously, Kolasa worked at Northern Michigan University, where she co-founded the Indoor Agriculture program.

“It’s been my mission to connect students with plants and growing their own food, because I’ve realized how important that is to have that connection,” Kolasa said. “You’re more likely to want to eat it. And if you eat this really fresh lettuce, you’re gonna get all the incredible benefits of that … You will notice differences. It affects not just how you feel physically, but it actually also affects how you feel mentally. And when we live in this long winter environment, where we only have maybe 60 days of growing outside, maybe 90 — like, this is really important because you guys are getting the freshest, most nutritious food right here that you’ve grown yourself.”

Botwright handed worksheets to his students, who worked in groups, and asked them to collect data after harvesting from their assigned section of the farm. The students recorded the total number of plants their group harvested, the number of leaves on each plant, and the mass of each plant.

“I find this really fun,” said Justine Gurney of the project, as her group used a mass kit to take measurements of their lettuce. “It’s something new, instead of always doing schoolwork. We get to actually have our hands on stuff. So I find this really fun and entertaining, actually.”

All of the plants grown in the hydroponic unit over the last month were harvested by the environmental science class. After the holidays, another group of students will engage with the Flex Farm. Botwright said that he has biology and ecology classes he was considering incorporating the activity into.

“It will probably go to first hour biology (next) because we’re going to start talking photosynthesis, you know, in the biology curriculum after New Year’s. So that will fit in very, very appropriately with their curriculum.”

Superior Health Foundation, the organization that provided $65,099 of funding to Fork Farms Foundation to get the Flex Farms into U.P. schools, said on their website, “The project will increase food security in the U.P. by engaging 21 different middle and high school classrooms through the seven intermediate school districts across the U.P. each year for two years in growing their own fresh vegetables through indoor agriculture. Indoor agriculture is a growing sector of sustainable food systems with the ability to grow leafy greens, herbs and fruiting crops such as cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes, indoors, year-round, on a small footprint of space, using minimal water and energy resources.”

According to a representative from Fork Farms, the other schools that received units — in addition to Bark River-Harris — were Bothwell Middle School, Carney-Nadeau High School, Chassell Township High School, E.B. Holman Middle School, EUPISD Learning Center, Ewen Trout Creek School District, Gladstone High School, Munising High School, Newberry High School, North Central Middle School, Ontonagon Area School District.

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