Andrea Steenblock examines lettuce to be thinned for the high school's greenhouse-to-table vegetable project.
Andrea Steenblock examines lettuce to be thinned for the high school's greenhouse-to-table vegetable project.
Chatfield students now have a greenhouse at their high school which allows them many opportunities for learning. There is more space for conducting labs, growing plants, raising fish and other projects. While the school once had a small hobby greenhouse, this larger facility has allowed the students and their teacher to utilize the space year round rather than three-seasons of the year.

"The previous greenhouse was a small hobby greenhouse that could only be used as a three-season greenhouse," said Chatfield High School ag instructor and FFA advisor Stacy Fritz.

It was not useable in the wintertime and definitely not amenable to plant science projects that included the use of tanks of fish to provide fertilizer for the aquaponically-grown plants. This new greenhouse was built the same year the new elementary.

Referring to the old greenhouse, she stated why the new greenhouse was necessary. "Structures such as this last longer when the temperature can be controlled throughout the year," Fritz said. "The large temperature swings this greenhouse experienced took a toll on the ventilation system as well as the panels of the building. This also presented challenges with growing seedlings and transplants. Another main reason this new greenhouse was needed was there was not enough space to conduct labs and projects properly."

Fortunately, the residents of Chatfield saw fit to grant students a new place to cultivate learning.

Fritz related, "It (the new greenhouse) was included in renovations and updates that were made to the high school when the building referendum was passed. We were fortunate enough to have our project approved, and since it has been built, there have been many learning opportunities available to students that could not be replicated without this size of a greenhouse."

The greenhouse is a busy place, even when the temperature outside is at freezing or below. "We use the greenhouse year round to house current and upcoming projects," Fritz explained. "Sometimes it takes a lot of lead time to get plant material ready for labs, and planning must be started months ahead of time. Winter and early spring becomes our busiest time of the year when we are planting seeds to use as bedding plants, raising the current crop of vegetables, planting the new crop of vegetables when the first one fails and learning why we had a crop failure. These are unique learning opportunities that cannot be replicated in the classroom."

The ag teacher enjoys using the greenhouse to introduce students in junior high to the basics of plant science, and the horticulture class uses the facility the most frequently to study plant generation, growing problems and pests.

"The eighth grade class uses the greenhouse when they are in their plant science unit and my natural resource classes use it when they work with the aquaponic system," Fritz added. "Currently, my horticulture class uses it the most. Students who take this course learn about concepts in plant science and apply these concepts commonly two to three times a week by spending class out in the greenhouse working on projects and labs. This type of hands-on learning gives students opportunities they may never otherwise get to experience and enhances retention on key science concepts."

In a fish-to-flower operation, the greenhouse is the place to be when the concepts of naturally produced fertilizer are put to the test.

"Our most current projects include our newly added hydroponics and aquaponics systems," Fritz explained. "We were able to build these systems using grant money received last year, and have been experimenting with the best ways to grow vegetables hydroponically - without soil - as well as getting our aquaponics system up and running."

She described the aquaponics system, noting, "This will be a self-sustaining system where tilapia are grown in the 300-gallon tank located in the bottom of the system, and vegetables would be grown in specialized grow beds that are located above the fish tank. Water is pumped from the fish tank to the grow beds where the hydroponic medium - we use expanded clay pebbles - absorbs and traps the nutrients from the fish waste for the plants to use as fertilizer."

Fritz said that she and her students currently have the system built and are cycling the system to get it ready for the tilapia they anticipate arriving in the next month. Cycling, she added, refers to growth of beneficial bacteria that are necessary to convert the fish waste into a usable form of fertilizer for the plants.

The Chatfield FFA chapter also uses the greenhouse, benefiting the community and fellow students.

"We have a small bedding plant sale held in May that benefits the FFA chapter, but a bigger emphasis has been placed on growing produce for the food service department here at the high school," Fritz added. "We received a grant to grow produce hydroponically as well as grant money for the aquaponic system."

She continued, "Most recently, we have received a grant to install the first of many raised garden beds to expand our ability to conduct research and grow local produce for the schools lunch program. Eventually, it is my goal to raise a number of heirloom varieties of vegetables for tasting by the students."

Fritz said her primary purpose is to educate the students that there are literally thousands of kinds of tomatoes, for example, and they all taste and look different. She said this holds true for many vegetables, and most people have not experienced eating these varieties as they typically are not offered in local grocery stores.

Even as the snow flies, the students are growing tomatoes of all shapes and flavors, kohlrabi and lettuce. They are learning a great deal about the growing process and its stages in a greenhouse that will continue to serve numerous purposes and hundreds of students, be it on the educational level or on their plates in the lunch room.

Fritz concluded, "We do this now on a small scale, but the hope is with further funding from grants that we can expand our ability to grow fruits and vegetables and also expand on the labs that we can do with these plants."