New hydroponics system benefits West Valley students’ education and nutrition
High School Hydroponics | Nina Culver |
IMAGE: Spokane Valley High School students Andrew Harding and Kinsay Pegar work in the greenhouse at the school on March 9. The school is using a hydroponic system to grow vegetables for the district’s kitchens. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
There’s been a lot of buzz in recent years about buying local, and the West Valley School District has taken that to heart, serving lettuce grown by students at Spokane Valley High School.
The school is the proud owner of a new hydroponic growing system that uses circulating water rather than dirt to grow plants and the first crop of lettuce was harvested in early January. The goal was to provide a hands-on learning system for students rather than relying on textbooks, said teacher Scott Carver.
“The plants are getting all their major macronutrients and all their micronutrients,” he said. “It’s a pretty efficient system. You’re not losing a bunch of water to evaporation. You’re not losing water into the soil.”
Carver had previously taught a hydroponics class more than a decade ago that got a lot of interest from students. But when the hydroponics system wore out, there wasn’t money to replace it.
“We wore that system out completely,” he said. “We were gluing it back together.”
Last fall, the district Nutrition Services Supervisor Kara Carlson asked Carver if he would like to work with her to apply for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for a new hydroponics system. They were awarded the grant and purchased the new system, which includes a large water tank and a series of trays where plants are grown. The system is in the school’s greenhouse so plants can be grown year-round.
Carver then recruited two students to get the system up and running.
“They just took it and ran with it from there,” he said.
Kinsay Pegar, a junior, had been interested in plants since taking a class in the school’s greenhouse her freshman year.
“I really enjoyed it,” she said. “My whole childhood, my family had a big garden. I’m really into plants.”
The first challenge was assembling the hydroponics system, which was delivered disassembled.
“It came in on a big pallet and we had to build it,” she said. “The instructions weren’t very informative.”
Pegar said she enjoys learning about hydroponics.
“We get to know the science behind the plants and the water,” she said. “It’s basic, so you don’t have to use dirt.”
Sophomore Andrew Harding was the other student recruited to launch the new hydroponics effort. He’s so into plants and growing food that he has a grow light in his room at home so he can grow a jalapeño plant and a strawberry plant.
“I had mentioned that I like plants a lot,” he said.
He said he’s enjoying learning about hydroponics and said he’s thinking about making plants part of his career in some way.
Each lettuce seed is placed in a piece of rock wool and left for a week to germinate, then it’s placed in a hydroponics tray. Hydro-gro and calcium nitrate are added to the water for nutrients. About eight weeks later, the lettuce is ready for harvesting.
Rows are planted at different times so there’s a new harvest about every two weeks. Last week was harvesting day for a few of the rows, which Pegar and Harding lifted out of the water to cut, weigh and bag for shipment to district kitchens. Carver said the district buys the lettuce, which will help make the hydroponics program at the school sustainable.
“The district has to buy lettuce anyway,” he said.
It’s one thing to study plant morphology in a textbook and it’s another to see it happen and document it, Carver said.
“It seems like we’re hitting all the learning,” he said.
Carver will launch a new hydroponics class in the fall. Not only is the hands-on learning that the school’s hydroponics system and greenhouse provide important, it exposes students to something that most of them have never experienced, Carver said. It can spark an interest that could turn into a lifelong hobby or a career.
“Kids walk in here and they’ve never been in a greenhouse before,” he said. “They’ve never had their hands in potting soil.”