In the parking lot of YME, the innocuous white building recently opened up to show the fruits from seeds of work planted long ago. The Bush Foundation donated a $100,000 grant for the greenhouse about four years ago. YME teacher Darrel Refsland toured the Monsanto greenhouse in St. Louis, Missouri. That gave him the idea for an enclosed greenhouse, since Minnesota has Minnesota weather. Extreme Panel helped design the greenhouse, including the suggestion to not install windows. L. Stockman, the former superintendent secured the Bush Foundation grant, and wanted the three to do a full greenhouse.
YME teachers Refsland, Jake Suter, and paraprofessional Ben Lecy have been the core behind bringing the project to fruition. They are giddy seeing the potential for the building. All three grew up as farm kids, and are pumped up to bring their experience to the classroom. According to Lecy, "The three of us haven't had a full night's sleep in three years. We are always thinking of things and talking to each other. 'What about this,' and now we have to learn about LED lighting, and how do we want this wired? And we have to design all these tables...Once it started, the building went up fast."
Suter speculated “I'm wondering about the connections we're going to make... MinnWest, Southwest State, University of Minnesota. This is one of the only enclosed and completely controlled greenhouses in the state, maybe the nation.” According to Lecy, "There's not enough ink to cover all the plans we have for this greenhouse. From the classroom aspect, supplementing the school lunch program, providing the community with herbs, teaching kids softwood cuttings, brambles..." Suter chimed in, "There is so much to teach. It's going to be service learning. They're going to be in here not just learning how photosynthesis works. They're giving back to the school lunch program, and hopefully others in the community. When you have service learning, students take ownership and buy in." Lecy added, "It's one thing to take a college level speech class, but where else are you going to get a college level ecology, or botany class." Suter continued, "This could really be a cross curricular venture, from the science of growing the plants, to the accounting, what are you growing, on the other end, advertising, getting the word out about what we're doing. I think this is something kids will be drawn to."
When you walk in, on the right there's a shelf of tubs making compost. The red wriggler worms from North Carolina to decompose. Waste products come from the school lunch program. The worms love banana peels. The goal is to have 16 bins on the shelf. When the soil is ready it will be used to grow the plants. It's a two layer bin, After the worms are done enriching the top bin, indicated by nitrogen tests, they will put food in the lower bin only, and after a few weeks, the worms will have all moved down, and the top bin has top quality soil. The nitrogen tests have been off the charts.
The next room will have aquaponics tanks. This is a closed loop system where fish and plants grow together. The fish waste provides nutrients for the plants, and the plants filter the water to keep the fish healthy. They have special 250 and 1200 PPFD lights, which is how many photons are shot out per second, or how powerful it is. Those lights are optimal for growing plants. The 250 are ideal for leafy greens, since not as much intensity is needed. The brighter lights focus on certain beneficial parts of the light spectrum. For plants, more emphasis on the reds, not much green or yellow, and then a very narrow part of the blue.
Suter has a sensor that shows the parts of the spectrum. "With fluorescent lights you don't get anything." They have high carbon matting laid into the cement in the floor. This makes the floor heated, which helps energy efficiency. There are no windows which also helps. The building has had power for about 2 1/2 months and still hasn't passed 2000 kilowatt hours as of the time of writing. The building is extremely energy efficient. The middle room is intended to be the "research room." There are four 10' tables right now, but there is room to build vertically. There could be rows and rows of plants growing in the future. On the table there are boxes of plants. An idea for the classes is a pair of students would be assigned a portion of a table, and take responsibility for the plants growing in that space from seed to kitchen.
According to Suter,"Vertical farming is the way of the future. You're seeing it more in urban areas already, not so much in rural areas because we have the space." It's a response to the limited space and soil erosion issues affecting agriculture. The farthest room is built identically to the research room. The plan is to have it focus on plants that are "ready to go."
They are also planning to add some landscaping around the parking lot. This can give plants a chance to "harden up" before being planted. Another idea is to have sections for elementary students to work and take care of. To say the students and teachers are excited is ridiculous understatement. Students will full schedules are asking about coming in before school or during lunch to work with plants. The kids are eager to get their hands dirty, literally, and are eager to see their hard work grow into something beautiful and beneficial for the community, just like the greenhouse is for these three teachers.