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Students grow deep roots with dirty hands

September 20, 2018

The greenhouse at Summit Innovations High School was bustling last week as students picked tomatoes, kale, carrots and more to sell at a farmers market. Shouts rang out as especially beautiful tomatoes were found hiding far back on the vine.

Students have their own organic farm enclosed in a small greenhouse to the side of the school. The variety found there is, in short, incredible: tomatoes, chocolate peppers, sunflowers, lacinato kale, watermelons, lemons, broccoli, basil, rosemary, mint, sage, tarragon, squash, purple mammoth cabbages, radishes, sugar snap peas, leeks, bush beans, swiss chard, cilantro, lemon cucumbers, Vidalia onions — and more.

The farm serves as a jumping-off point for a new class on sustainable agriculture taught by science instructor Brian Hager.

As the year progresses he will “zoom out” and touch on topics in the Tetons and beyond.

“It’s the springboard to teach about all facets of sustainability,” Hager said.

Students are already thrilled with the offering, saying it “blew their mind” when they discovered the opportunity.

“This is the type of stuff I’ve been wanting to do,” said sophomore Tucker Helm, 15. “My goal is to own my own ranch someday, so taking sustainable agriculture will help me achieve my goals.”

Students built the greenhouse in their free time, on the weekends and over the summer, working alongside their families and Hager. His 2-year-old daughter played in the strawberry patch while he tended to the tomatoes.

“They have a lot of skin in the game,” Hager said. “Because this is the house we built.”

A component of the class this fall has been selling fresh produce, picked that very day during class, at the People’s Market.

Last Wednesday students were under strict instructions: Harvest as much as you can while leaving enough for one more market today.

Eighteen pints of sweet cherry tomatoes, all the cucumbers possible, as many bundles of kale as could be tied with rope in one class, and carrots were on that list. Those who weren’t harvesting tilled the soil of a bed outside in order to plant radish seeds.

They immediately got down to business in the most hands-on way possible.

“This is a farm,” Hager said. “There is such thing as dirt.”

Hager even teaches his class a little bit of Marketing 101.

“Be delicate, be dainty,” he said, instructing the teenagers to walk between the plants carefully. “Nobody wants to buy a tomato that split open. And the redder the better.”

Carrots are sold in multicolored bunches for the same reason. A group of kids who call themselves the “carrot monsters” took that on.

“It’s pleasing to the eye and will probably catch the eye of some customers,” Hager told his students. “Do they look cute? Do they look sellable? Carrots with tops sell better than carrots without tops.”

The produce is student-approved. Sophomore Helm tried kale for the first time.

“It doesn’t taste bad!” he exclaimed.

Hager told him that kale will respond to the first frost by making more sugars, sweetening the sometimes bitter vegetable.

“Now I can’t wait,” Helm said.

Students were full of ideas as to how the produce could be used. What about turning the cabbage into sauerkraut? Would adding squash to mac and cheese taste good? Could they make kale chips?

What about growing artichokes, a challenge in Wyoming, to make homemade artichoke dip?

Hager reassured his students. If they can grow tomatoes, he said, they can grow pretty much anything.

“We’re already broken those rules,” he said.

Right now veggies aren’t priced per pound as they are at larger farms. Produce is sold in round numbers, like $5 a pint. Proceeds go directly back to Summit’s greenhouse, which Hager hopes to make completely self-sustainable.

“To teach sustainable agriculture, you pretty much have to model it,” he said.

That means minimizing costs, not using pesticides and generating fertility by putting outputs back into the soil. Composting also occurs on-site.

At the People’s Market last week, students made $136, more than three times what they needed to cover the whole winter’s worth of seeds.

Once the fall crop reaches maturity, what’s left will go dormant. Cold weather crops, like spinach and kale, can remain at peak freshness until harvest that way.

“It stays almost in a time capsule,” Hager said.

Expansion over time

Summit students have been lucky enough to have a greenhouse for years. Originally built by former teacher Brit Hoyt and her husband Brad as a way of providing fresh, healthy snacks for students, it eventually fell into a state of disrepair due to neglect over the years.

Hager started putting TLC into the building again over the past couple of years. During the 2017-18 school year improvements were made by leaps and bounds. Hager applied for several grants for seed money — pun intended — and found the materials he needed by “pillaging lumber yards’ throwaway piles.”

That’s when junior Carolena Couey, 16, became involved.

“While we were building it I was very enthusiastic,” she said. “I garden in my house myself, and I love to see how the plants grow.”

A timer makes watering less labor-intensive, but temperature sealing remained the real challenge.

The greenhouse took lots of adjusting in accordance with the weather. Hager fastidiously tracks the nightly lows. When it started snowing in November students put a tarp on top, and by late January it was completely sealed up.

It’s all about mitigating the extremes, he said. The greenhouse temperature reaches 85 degrees in some of the coldest winter months, and Hager worried about how hot it could get in the summer.

In came a vent fan, hooked up to a thermostat, that brings in cold air from the outside when necessary.

A layer of plastic alone adds 15 degrees from the external temperature and creates the equivalent of a southern Colorado or Arizona climate. Hager also insulated the north-facing wall and added thermal batteries he got for free from a Bozeman, Montana, car wash.

The batteries are in painted black containers. They absorb heat during the day and release it at night.

“They never froze,” Hager said. “There would sometimes be skim ice on top, but that was it.”

By mid-April they were in the clear again. When the nightly lows weren’t too brutal Hager rolled up the walls of the greenhouse to let fresh air and pollinators come in.

Tomatoes and peppers donated from the Teton County Education Foundation’s annual plant and flower sale were planted alongside the other produce. The garden is truly a community effort: Excess soil from the new Munger Mountain Elementary School is being used to grow vegetables.

The beds, Hager admits, are a little chaotic.

“We wanted to see what performed well in the greenhouse,” he said. “Next year we’ll work on uniformity with spacing and shade. It’s all the learnings that happen. That’s farming.”

A different way to learn

While books, worksheets and lectures are an integral part of the American education system, students say the class is a breath of fresh air.

“It’s just different,” said senior Angela Nava, 17. “We’re not sitting in a room with a textbook. We learn by hand.”

It blurs the line between amusement and school, Nava said.

“We do something fun, but we’re learning at the same time,” she said.

Classmate Danny Padilla, 15, said he enjoys the class for altruistic reasons. He gets to give back to the community and the environment and even lend Hager a helping hand by participating.

“I like it,” he said. “I’m very helpful; I like helping others.”

The students in Hager’s class are not the only ones who benefit from the on-site greenhouse. Produce ends up in Summit’s lunch line, and Teton County schools Food Service Director Wes Clarke would love to see that happen more across the district, where he spends $2,300 on fresh produce a week.

“I really wish we could do it more,” he said.

Student-grown produce like cucumbers and cherry tomatoes also ends up in catering events for district functions, school board meetings and the summer food program.

That, Hager said, is what it’s all about.

“This is human agriculture,” he said. “This is how we feed ourselves. And if we can make money, even better.”

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