by Rebecca Greisen
What started as a lofty dream for Clark County’s Eat Right Be Fit (ERBF) Coalition became a reality on September 15, 2021, when four of Clark County’s eight public school districts were awarded a hydroponic vertical farm along with one year of growing supplies.
Over the last few years, Wisconsin has seen a significant increase in the number of school districts who utilize hydroponic farms to provide students with educational opportunities as well as to supplement their school lunch programs. In a single year, some farms are capable of producing 300lbs of fresh vegetables for less than one dollar per pound.
Hydroponic farms are unique in that they do not require soil. Instead, the plants are suspended, with their root systems feeding directly from a solution of water and nutrients that circulates through tubes. There are several styles and sizes of hydroponic farms available on the market. Larger versions are ideal for classrooms and community centers in that they are relatively clean, provide many opportunities for agricultural education, and can grow large quantities of produce in very little space.
In 2018, Colby Elementary School became the first school is Clark County to implement a hydroponic farm. Currently, Colby has 3 units. When the ERBF Coalition learned of the innovative work that Jean Rosemeyer, a second grade teacher at Colby was doing with her elementary students, the coalition made it their goal to get more hydroponic units into Clark County schools.
In June 2021, ERBF applied for a grant from Aspirus Stanley Hospital and was awarded $10,000. ERBF then outreached to multiple teachers at each of Clark County’s eight public school districts regarding the opportunity to receive a free hydroponic farm along with one year of supplies. Teachers who were interested were asked to complete an online survey, discuss the opportunity with their principal or district administrator, and attend an informational meeting with Fork Farms, creator of the Flex Farm hydroponic system. In total, four schools completed all preliminary requirements for consideration and submitted an application. They were Abbotsford School District, Loyal Elementary School, Owen-Withee Middle/High School, and Thorp Elementary School.
Through generous investments from Aspirus Stanley Hospital and Marshfield Medical Center of Neillsville, the Eat Right Be Fit Coalition was able to fund and award all four schools with a hydroponic farm and one year of supplies. In addition to this, extra funds were used to provide supplies to Colby School District to help continue supporting their existing hydroponic units. In total, this investment amounted to more than $18,000.
ERBF chose to partner with Fork Farms, creator of the Flex Farm hydroponic system, because of the company's mission to unleash the power of fresh food production for happier, healthier people. In schools, Fork Farms combines its hydroponic technology with comprehensive K-12 curriculum to provide students with hands-on learning about how their food grows, where food comes from, and its nutrition. This has been shown through research to lead to an improvement in students’ perceptions of fresh food, their knowledge of healthy nutrition, and their total consumption of vegetables.
The Fork Farms hydroponic farm, known as the Flex Farm, can grow upwards of 400 pounds of produce annually with no more than a temperature-controlled room and a standard wall outlet. The Flex Farm is 40% more energy efficient than other hydroponic farms, which keeps operating costs down. The efficient design makes hydroponic growing accessible for schools, nonprofits, corporate cafeterias, and other partners, now including many classrooms in Clark County. Fork Farms has worked with nearly 300 schools nationwide, making it a perfect partner for the ERBF Coalition's initiative.
The Sentinel & Rural News covers the news and events of Clark County and southern Taylor County, as well as regional news that affects those areas.