In response to the current health crisis, Marshfield Medical Center – Ladysmith has partnered with six Rusk County organizations to sponsor hydroponic gardens at each of their locations.
On Dec. 6 Fork Farms founders Alex Tyink and Steve Tyink met with representatives from Marshfield Medical Center – Ladysmith, Bruce School, Flambeau School, Ladysmith School, North Cedar Academy, ADRC and Connections to train how to use their sponsored hydroponic gardens.
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.
Fork Farms provided each school with a curriculum book broken down into lesson plans for grades 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.”
Alex Tyink said the indoor food growing industry is expected to grow to $30 billion over the next 10 years so it’s important to learn how to do it inexpensively. The Fork Farms hydroponic gardens are cost effective and sustainable said Tyink.
Of the advantages of learning about hydroponic gardens, Bruce School student Sawyer Gerber said it will be an opportunity for students to “recognize where the future of farming lies, in terms of hydroponics.”
The partnership with MMC-L brings typically high priced food to a food scarce community with cost efficiency. In the standard food system, some of the lettuces the hydroponic gardens grow typically cost $12-16 per pound. The hydroponic gardens being that cost to a dollar or less, according to Alex Tyink.
The Fork Foods hydroponic garden is a two half-circle 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 Fork Farms hydroponic gardens are designed for optimal success. The Appleton based company is dedicated to food security, according to Alex Tyink. The low cost system is natural since the seeds are planted in a biodegradable volcanic rock matter and the minerals and nutrients fed to the plants 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.
The caretakers of the hydroponic gardens check the chemistry of the water, looking for correct pH and mineral and nutrient levels and adding adjustments as needed.
Checking the garden takes only a few minutes each week. Caretakers record progress and findings and in the mean time learn the science behind growing food.
Bruce School student Logan Golubiff attended the training and said the hydroponic garden is “a great opportunity for our students to learn how to grow their own food and…allows us to experience a new form of sustainable farming.”
Students will learn the benefits of indoor, sustainable agriculture. Alex Tyink said the gardens provide access to fresh foods year round, eliminate transportation costs of getting the food to plates, eliminate spoiled food, drastically increase nutrient levels in the food, and increase shelf life of food.
Behrends said, “It’s going to be a great educational tool…especially in food science, plant science, in our middle school introduction to AG class.” Behrends also sees the school’s FFA members benefiting from the garden.
The current food system is broken, said Alex Tyink. It usually takes three and a half weeks to get food to the store, which depletes nutrients and has a severe negative impact on the environment. This system will allow the schools and organizations to grow food cheaper than they can buy it and that will have an enormous positive impact on the environment.
The Fork Food hydroponic gardens are made mostly with parts made in Wisconsin. The lights and pump are made in California and Canada, respectively, only because these things are not made in Wisconsin. Tyink said, “we want you guys to have this for 30 years.” Each garden has a lifetime warranty.
The MMC-L partnership included 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.
Steve Tyink told the attendees another application for the gardens some schools have used is to set the hydroponic gardens up in their “zen” classrooms for therapeutic purposes. The sound of the water is relaxing. Some schools have also sold extra produce and used the funds to purchase band uniforms.
Barg said the MMC-L hydroponic garden will be located in the lobby and will be used for education by the nutritionists and diabetics departments to teach healthy cooking classes. Barg says she hopes to share their garden with as many people in the community as possible.
Marshfield Medical Center Community Benefit Coordinator Emily Brunsted said MMC is piloting the hydroponic gardens in Rusk County and hopes to expand to other high need areas. With 60 percent of Rusk County students receiving free or reduced lunches, MMC-L wants to increase access to healthy foods for greater health. Getting kids excited about growing foods will lead to them being excited to eat them.
Rusk County schools are excited to be able to incorporate the hydroponic gardens into their curriculums and in their cafeterias.
North Cedar Academy Director of Residential Life and Student Services Bonnie Smith said, “the garden will provide not only produce for the school and community but it will also be an invaluable learning resource for our students. … the chance to learn more about hydroponics and take that knowledge back to their own communities would make a global impact.”
Smith said North Cedar Academy intends to serve some of the produce to their students but they plan to donate at least half of the produce to the local food pantry. She said this opportunity will create a sense of empowerment in their students as they take the knowledge back to their own communities and make a positive impact there.
At Ladysmith School Bunton said the priority of any extra produce sold would go toward seeds and resupply kits and the greenhouse so the school can continue to support food related programs. Beyond that immediate need, a great extension of the project would be supporting some experiential learning opportunities related to agriculture.
At Flambeau School Behrends said beyond the classroom she is hoping to collaborate with the cafeteria so the produce can be served to student during lunchtime. Extra produce could also be treated like the school’s greenhouse “where money m ade from sales of plants will help benefit the class or FFA program.”
At Bruce school, Golubiff and Gerber are hoping to use the garden as a beneficial learning tool in classrooms and use the produce in the school’s lunch program and salad bar.
Golubiff said, “hopefully, the garden will inspire out students to be a little more conscious about the food they put in their bodies, and teach them about different types of vegetable production.”
Alex Tyink called the partnership an incredible program and unique opportunity for the community.