- Associated Press - Monday, March 24, 2014

MENDOTA, Ill. (AP) - The local food initiative took root in Mendota recently when a local business partnered with Mendota High School to start providing the school cafeteria with lettuce grown right on campus.

Jeff Landers, agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at Mendota High School, said the school first investigated the possibility of growing lettuce with a hydroponic system last year.

“This is an idea that Carolyn Pollard had,” Landers said. “She knew it had been done at other schools.”

Pollard died Aug. 4, 2013, but that idea has since grown into a full-fledged hydroponic system with a little help from EnP Inc. in Mendota which markets the Age Old Organics line of garden products.

Kyle Ladenburger with EnP has worked with hydroponic systems and volunteered to help the local students get their system going.

He said there are several different hydroponic systems used by growers and the one at Mendota High School is a nutrient film technique or NFT. The water contains a film of nutrients in the reservoir that feeds the plants.

“Lettuce usually takes 80-90 days; this will take 60 days,” he said. The system also allows the students to grow more lettuce in less space than in a conventional, outdoor garden.

With snow on the ground, few people are growing lettuce or any other crops in March, but the greenhouse gives the students a head start. It also requires more maintenance so the sun doesn’t overheat the racks of tiny lettuce plants.

“This system is very sensitive to temperature and humidity,” he said.

Students Damian Hebert and Greg Bator assembled the system and will be responsible for monitoring it.

“There’s a lot of different chemicals, measuring pH, electrical conductivity - there’s a lot of science involved,” Landers said. “What I’d really like (the students) to get out of this is the possibilities in niche marketing.”

An increased interest in organic food, farmers markets and a statewide “Eat Local” campaign have been driving demand over the last few years, and this is an area that students can explore as they consider future careers in agriculture, Landers said.

Hebert said he’s interested in agriculture but his job last summer sparked his interest in hydroponics.

“I worked in a nursery over the summer,” he said. “At my nursery, we didn’t have hydroponics so I wanted to learn more.”

Landers farms when he’s not teaching, but hydroponics is a completely different growing system, and he said he’s learned a lot.

“With gardening, you’re not really monitoring the soil pH and the nutrients as much,” he said. “There’s a lot of science and technology with this.”

Landers was able to secure a grant for the reservoir and pump system and Ladenburger said EnP donated the nutrient solutions needed to keep the plants healthy. He’s also volunteered to work with Landers and the students on monitoring the system.

“There are fluctuations in the pH when you’re doing soil-less growing and that’s the most important part,” Ladenburger said. “As the water circulates, the plants will take in more nutrients so that has to be monitored.”

He also showed the students how to measure nutrient levels based on the solution’s electrical conductivity. The more electricity it conducts, then the greater the concentration of nutrients, he explained.

As the sun warmed the greenhouse, Landers said it was no match for the below-zero temperatures in January and February that delayed production. Now the lettuce plants are growing and should be ready for the cafeteria in a few more weeks.

Superintendent Jeff Prusator said the students and staff are excited about the home-grown lettuce.

“This is as local as it gets,” he said. “There’s a sense of pride and it’s student-centered. We’re excited.”

While hydroponics is growing in popularity around the country, Mendota might be the only school in the area actually using the system on campus right now. Ladenburger hopes that will change.

“I was really excited to see them do this,” he said. “It’s really cool to see this around the country.”

Hydroponic how-to

Hydroponics is a soil-less system of growing a variety of plants, particularly vegetables. The closed system circulates nutrients and water through the developing plants roots. The lettuce growing in the greenhouse at Mendota High School requires 13 nutrients which are dissolved in the water that circulates through the system.

Seeds are planted in rockwool, a fiber made from basalt. The rockwool helps the plants take up nutrients without completely soaking the roots.

The water is aerated in a large, enclosed tub as it is pumped through the trays to the roots of the plants. The solution must be monitored closely for proper pH and nutrient levels.

Hydroponics conserve water since it is re-circulated through the system and the trays of plants also take up far less space than conventional gardens.

Hydroponic systems are in greenhouses, which also allows for almost year-round growing as long as the temperature, humidity and light are monitored and adequate for the plants.


Source: (LaSalle) News Tribune, https://bit.ly/1kK07fj


Information from: News-Tribune, https://www.newstrib.com

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