In an attempt to provide more food security and to be a leader in responding to the current health crisis, Marshfield Medical Center – Ladysmith has partnered with four Rusk County schools and two organizations to place hydroponic gardens at each of the locations.
In December Fork Farm founders Alex Tyink and Steve Tyink met with representatives from Marshfield Medical Center – Ladysmith, Bruce School, Flambeau School, Ladysmith School, North Cedar Academy, Connections and the Aging and Disability Resource Center.
Tyink and Tyink trained participating representatives how to effectively use the hydroponic gardens, how to start seeds, monitor the system, adjust the water and nutrient qualities and harvest the vegetables.
MMC-L sponsored the placement of the six hydroponic gardens as a way to target food insecurities and encourage healthy eating behaviors. The focus of the gardens, for MMC-L, is on the community. Improving eating habits and bringing healthy food to the community to, hopefully, reduce health implications of poor eating habits and educate the community about cooking and eating food you’ve grown.
Each of the gardens were planted with lettuce seeds which were harvested approximately 21-28 days after the seeds were started.
MMC-L representative Dale Bentley oversaw the care at MMC-L and harvested the lettuce plants when matured. During the harvest Bentley said amazed, “it’s negative four degrees out and I’m gardening.” Bentley grew up with a family garden and enjoys gardening now.
Lettuce plants were trimmed and placed in gallon-size bags and placed in the frequently traveled area and available for individuals to take for free. MMC-L also provided free recipes for easy to mix up salad dressings.
The hospital is planning on using the produce as education tools in their diabetic, healthy cooking classes.
MMC-L is excited for the opportunity to respond to the current health crisis and hopes the education surrounding the garden will help create a healthier community. Director of Clinical Services Shelley Barg said Rusk County was selected for the placement of the gardens after identifying the county as having a high need reflected in a high level of food insecurity.
Ladysmith Science Department Chairperson and teacher Matt Bunton said, “I’m very excited to have the hydroponic garden as a learning tool for my students. When discussing current environmental issues, food insecurity is a huge issue both locally and globally.”
The hydroponic gardens will allow each organization to grow a large amount of food in a small space in a cost effective, sustainable method. The gardens challenge the current food system by offering a low cost and efficient way to provide healthy organic food. The goal of the project is to not only provide healthy food to the community, but also to create an impact on skills and education.
Bruce High School Agriculture teacher Sam Behrends oversees the hydroponic garden at Bruce School as his student Logan Golubiff adopted the garden as his FFA project. Golubiff enjoys the project and the break in his schedule to be able to tend to the garden. FFA at Bruce School allows Ag students, like Golubiff, an hour a week to work on hands-on agriculture-focus projects.
Sam Behrends said, “most of our produce is grown in California and it’s not as sustainable as it once was,” The efficiency of LED lighting in hydroponic garden systems can be more efficient than a greenhouse at different times of the year and it can, according to Behrends, grow plants faster, reduce transportation costs and needs and be done anywhere.
Behrends foresees a shift in how we grow and eat food. Much of that shift is going to come from the change and increasingly fast development of technology.
Fork Farms provided each school with a curriculum book broken down into lesson plans for kindergarten through grade 12. Each lesson targets the learning level of the student as they learn about the biology and chemistry of hydroponic gardens, growing food, food safety and the food system.
The gardens provide a real hands-on experience of growing food.
Bunton said Ladysmith students will “be taught how to use the equipment and then will grow food to be used directly in our school lunch program at Ladysmith Middle and High School.”
Flambeau Middle and High School Agriculture Instructor Jenna Behrends is excited for the nearly endless ways the hydroponic garden can benefit the school’s students. Behrends said, “teaching students about agriculture and where their food comes from at a young age is important, because many of them are so far removed from the farm.”
The Fork Foods hydroponic garden consists of a two half-octagon panel system with a 25-gallon water tank at the bottom. The panels are connected with two water hoses and use gravity and pressure to cycle water through the garden with the help of a submerged pump. Each panel has 144 ‘snaps’ or places for seedlings, together the system allows for a total of 288 snaps for growing plants.
The panels open for caretakers to work on, monitor and harvest plants. An energy efficient light system stands in the center and is set on an 18-hour light cycle to provide plants needed light energy.
The Appleton based company, Fork Farms hydroponic gardens are designed for optimal success. At NCA, Biology and Chemistry teacher Ryan Lee said the garden is the perfect tool for teaching both subjects.
The low cost system uses a biodegradable volcanic rock matter to plant seeds into. Once sprouted the plants are ready to be transferred into the garden where they are fed minerals and nutrients that are mineral-salt based, not petroleum based.
Each garden can produce 330 pounds of organic food each year.
Each of the gardens are starting with leafy lettuces but the gardens are not limited to growing just lettuces. The gardens are optimized for growing green leafy, perishable food but individuals have successfully grown a plethora of foods such as cucumbers, strawberries, cherry tomatoes, squash, herbs and much more.
After the first round of harvesting the plants, each of the schools are gathering ideas on where to take their garden, in terms of what to plant. Bruce School has already introduced spinach with their lettuce. Sam Behrends and Golubiff are using a spreadsheet to track and monitor plantings and harvests. One panel in the octagon shaped garden is being planted each week. The result will be a harvest once a week, on Mondays, to provide fresh produce to the school’s cafeteria.
During the summer, with fewer students in the building, Behrends and Golubiff are hoping to participate in the Bruce and Rusk County farmers markets with the produce they grow.
The MMC-L sponsorship includes a re-supply kit for each of the gardens. The supplies will last about a year while the garden is capable of producing 20 pounds of food in 21 days.
Lee said that beyond the teaching aspects of the garden, the students have enjoyed watching the plants grow. Many of the students who have classes with the hydroponic gardens reported the sound of the water is relaxing.
Prior to receiving the Fork Farm hydroponic garden, Sam Behrends had looked at hydroponic gardens systems and said he had planned on trying to secure funding for the school to have one. Behrends said he was excited for Bruce School to benefit from this particular garden because of its vertical, space efficient set up.
Unlike other hydroponic garden systems, said Behrends, this vertical system doesn’t take up a lot floor space, which is exactly what he wanted.
Getting kids excited about their food is a great way to get them to start eating healthy, said Behrends.
Being caretakers of these hydroponic gardens is a unique and “cool” way to approach the modern food dilemma, food insecurity and the health problems quickly growing in our community, state and country. MMC-L is seeking to be the solution to many of these problems.