Students Take Action and Dig In: ARTech’s Student-Led Greenhouse Project

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by Christina Eschbach • March 2011
Type: 
CERTs
ARTech greenhouse underneath their solar PV panels

It’s difficult to get teenagers to clean their room, much less take on a project, but that’s just what the students at Northfield School of Arts and Technology (ARTech) did. ARTech is a charter school in Northfield, Minnesota, comprised of talented students in grades 6-12. The first time the school received a grant from the SE CERTs, it was for an alternative energy project, specifically successful installation of a 2.8 kilowatt solar panel system. This time, the students have done it again, but this time they wanted to construct a greenhouse for life science and sustainable food production seminars, as well as provide space for students to do their own individual projects.

The idea for the greenhouse initially came from a parent who mentioned it to, Simon Tyler, the director of ARTech, in November 2008. The students thought it was a fantastic idea and volunteered to help organize, build, and continue the project, with assistance from community mentors and faculty. One of the student leaders of the project, Amelia Schmelzer, was one of many 8th and 9th grade students who took charge of the project. Now, three years later, the students continue to work on the greenhouse, garnering new leadership and management skills as they prepare for the next step in their lives.

The first plan for the greenhouse was to design and build it from the ground up, but after attending the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) Organic Farming Conference in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, the students decided to purchase an unheated hoop greenhouse rather than build a custom design. This helped cut costs by 90% and was as effective as their original plan.

The students encountered unforeseen difficulties with permits for the City of Northfield. The application process was complex, and the students needed a variance permit so the greenhouse could be placed in the optimal position for sunlight exposure.

Amelia handled most of the paperwork for the project. “I’m the applications lady; I wrote the grants, building permit, and conditional use permit for the project (with help, of course),” she added, “Various teachers looked over the papers to make sure I was using complete sentences, right terminology, and we would discuss the principles behind our answers at weekly greenhouse team meetings.”

The students demonstrated incredible organizational skills and resourcefulness in how much they did by themselves. The student team not only had to overcome a significant fundraising goal, but they had to learn about the permitting process, work with the Planning Office in Northfield, and learn how to match manufacture specifications with City building codes. Yet, the challenges could not faze the students. Throughout the project the school was 100% behind the students and the project, and was very supportive of this huge undertaking. The students attended school board meetings to talk about the process and the progress of the greenhouse. They also had a guidance of local farmer, Andrew Ehrmann, who is an organic farmer and formerly worked in construction. Ehrmann provided helpful information about growing principles, helped them compose a long-term plan for the greenhouse, and oversaw the students’ construction of the greenhouse.

2010-2011 was the greenhouse’s first growing season, and inside the greenhouse it never dipped below freezing temperature. The students were able to plant, compost and successfully grow garlic, Asian greens, lettuce, radishes, carrots, beets, spinach in-ground, and leeks and onion transplants inside. They are selling their fresh, organic produce to parents and other people around the area, and hope to be able to sell their produce to the local food co-op in Northfield.

To enrich the soil in the greenhouse, ARTech is also working on devising a composting system to convert school waste into a useful fertilizer. “As far as composting goes, we’re making our own. We have three big shipping crates a school parent donated, and we’re collecting food waste from the cafeteria and composting it,” describes Amelia.

For the students involved, the project required students to balance their school work, other activities, and the greenhouse in their busy lives. It helped that teachers were flexible and enthusiastic about the project. The students involved learned about “planning, time management, construction skills, reasoning, and an appreciation for plants and how our own food is grown,” adds Amelia.

Amelia also said that “without the CERTs grant, I don’t think our project would have ever happened. The CERTs grant covered preparation of the city permit application, which we couldn’t have ever raised enough money for. And this grant also allowed us to hire our farmer-in-residence, who’s made our project a lot more simple, effective, and fun.” They also received financial support from the school and through fundraising in the community. A list of funders can be found here.

The greenhouse project was an amazing and wildly successful feat accomplished by a committed body of students who have seen and will see the whole project through until they graduate. ARTech has many other talented students who will continue to hold the torch, leading their community in clean energy and sustainable projects.

For more information, email the ARTech Greenhouse project at artechgreenhouse@gmail.com or the Northfield School of Arts and Technology located at 1719 Cannon Road, Northfield, MN 55057 or call 507-663-8806.

Project Snapshot

  • Purpose: Student-led planning and implementation of a greenhouse for hands-on training in year-roundfood production
  • Technology: 20×48 foot Hoophouse Greenhouse
  • Plants: Garlic, Asian greens, lettuce, radishes, carrots, beets, spinach, leeks, and onions
  • Student Team: 7 students grades 8th and 9th
  • Grant: $4,200 Southeast CERT
  • Total Cost: $4,200

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