HomeLink Magazine Winter 2014:  Growing Up

Growing Up
Steamboat Springs Middle School takes food learning to the next level

By: Andy Kennedy, Yampa Valley Sustainability Council

School year dates were originally developed around agricultural production, giving youth time in the summer to help in the fields. But in modern times, since most students aren’t spending their summers helping their family on the farm learning about agriculture, gardening, and more specifically, how food grows, this must happen in a theoretic learning classroom environment during the school year. In the Yampa Valley, more and more students are getting interested and participating in agriculture through our many 4H program clubs during summer months, but there is still room for this education throughout the school year, and Steamboat Springs Middle School is ahead of that curve.

Back when Steamboat Springs Middle School (SSMS) was built in 1981, two greenhouses, intended for teaching, education, and food production, were added to the exterior. But since Principal Jerry Buelter came to the school in 2001, and perhaps long before that, the structures haven’t been used for the intended purposes. But if Jerry Buelter, and a dedicated group of staff and parents, have their way, the working greenhouses will be just a part of a bigger program, connecting students to the food they eat.

In 2014, a team of teachers, parents, administrators, and consultants at the SSMS began work on a live-learning and work-to-eat program that weaves in both the Green Team and Special Education students with an indoor growing system, known as Tower Gardens.

The Tower Garden is an aeroponic/hydroponic garden system that makes indoor gardening easy, producing edibles in one-third the time of traditional gardening and using 10 percent of the water. The five-section tower houses four “net pots” per section for twenty plants to grow, and rests atop a 20-gallon reservoir. A water pump brings nutrient rich water up from the base through a center shaft, which then showers down over the root system of the plants. The plants sit in what’s called a “rock wool” packet that helps them absorb their minerals—there isn’t an ounce of dirt in the system.

Through a Live Well Colorado grant in 2013, two of these Tower Garden systems were purchased, originally intended for the two Steamboat Springs elementary schools, but were brought to the middle school in March of 2014 when Nutritional Services worker, Lauri Aigner, and teacher, Carly Ziegler, teamed up. Aigner says, “This is the future of growing because our soil is more and more depleted—it takes eating three times the amount of traditionally grown broccoli as it did fifty years ago to get the same amount of nutrients.”

Buelter sees the Tower Garden as the beginning of a larger program. Tower Gardens are just starting to get the recognition they deserve, and bringing them into the schools is the best way to get the word out. Buelter hopes to gather assistance from the community to revive the greenhouses. Due to their age, pipes and vents need to be upgraded, and some of the structuring needs to be renovated. It will take a community effort to help bring these systems back to life.
But the students are eager as well as staff, and Ziegler says her Green Team is excited about their involvement this year with this process. “Empowering them to be able to make choices is what this is all about. If they want to change the way they eat, then they should have the power to. Learning about good growth and consumption is not just a social choice, it’s an environmental one.”

Ziegler is also excited about the three-pronged learning possibility through the indoor aeroponic system: students will see a faster and larger crop right in the classroom, the outdoor long-term process of the orchard will leave a legacy for students to come, and aging greenhouses will be revived.

Kim Brooks of Elkstone Farm was hired as the garden consultant for the orchard. Brooks plans to start with perennial plants to avoid the attention that an annual garden would take and focus on apples, because of their success rate in the valley—Brooks states they do just as well as the crabapples here—and pear trees because of the fall fruiting the students could take advantage of. She hopes to continue to add cherries, raspberries, and strawberries in the following years.

Planting for the orchard is aimed for spring, and they are looking for a volunteer corps of parents, students, and community members, ideally lead by teachers, so classrooms can get out there and observe the plants—looking for bugs, curled leaves, change in bark and trunks. Brooks says observing is the first step in caring for them.

Buelter supports the teacher and student work on these projects on multiple levels, both as an administrator, a father, and a backyard gardener himself. “We all do better when we can learn outside of the classroom. Adding this sustainable food program just makes sense. Growing their own food will encourage students to eat healthier as well.”

These three projects are only the beginning. Buelter dreams of a xeriscaped courtyard. In the meantime, SSMS students stand to learn a lot about the process of growing healthy food over the years to come. If you can lend a hand, do; the greenhouses are a valuable asset of the schools from which the students deserve to learn.