Growing a greenhouse program: Eureka Springs FFA students create produce for high school cafeteria
Eureka Springs High School students have a special treat at lunchtime this year.
Agriculture teacher Jason McAfee said his students have been growing lettuce for the cafeteria’s salad bar, saying he hoped that would happen when the greenhouse was built last year. It was his ultimate goal, McAfee said, and he’s proud of his students for accomplishing it.
“Bringing food back to the cafeteria was one of my big visions,” McAfee said. “Having year-round strawberry and lettuce production was also my vision.”
McAfee said the students have been growing different types of lettuce to see what works best. In addition to the lettuce, he said, the students are working on a tower garden where tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries will grow.
“We’ll eventually be harvesting that and adding it to the salad bar later on,” McAfee said.
Senior Chris Segura said he’s been focusing on the tower garden.
“It’s pretty neat. It’s like a modern technology for gardening that takes up very little space,” Segura said. “It’s pretty nice.”
To consistently provide food for the salad bar, McAfee said, it’s important to grow produce in phases.
“We have to get all this phased so we have constant production on a weekly basis,” McAfee said. “We have three phases of production going. We hope to get into four. Right now, we are capable of producing 450 plants with this hydroponics system.”
Senior Kayden Eckman said he’s happy to grow food for his fellow students.
“It’s crazy how much we have advanced over the the past year. We started almost with nothing, got a hydroponics system, had a plant sale and got so much growing,” Eckman said. “Being able to grow lettuce for our lunch is just incredible.”
“It’s great we can be this much of an influence in our own school community,” Segura said.
Senior Novaleigh Cline and sophomore Tarrah Youngblood said they’ve been working on lettuce production.
“Everyone can try what we grow, and it’s really good,” Youngblood said.
“It’s awesome we’re able to eat food we produced,” Cline said. “It makes us proud to have an influence in high school like this.”
McAfee said he’s proudly watched his students grow since the greenhouse was built.
“They are very engaged. They know what to do,” McAfee said.
On harvest days, he said, the cafeteria sends bags down and the students get to work.
“The students are very sanitary in going about this whole process,” McAfee said. “They wash their hands, put on the glove and we pull one plant at a time. All the plants go right into the bag and they go straight to the cafeteria.”
An important lesson his students are learning, McAfee said, is how to use technology when gardening.
“They are learning about the importance of maintaining things on a science level,” McAfee said. “PH and EC levels are very important in a hydroponics system, so they’re looking at that on a daily basis.”
Segura said he never expected to work with so much technology in his agriculture class.
“There’s some weird technology things. We have a cooling system where the water trickles down and it cools the entire place,” Segura said. “It’s a bunch of weird stuff.”
“It’s a lot more technology than I thought it would be having a greenhouse,” Youngblood said.
“Yeah,” Cline said, “a lot of technology.”
A year from now, McAfee said, he hopes the greenhouse is thriving. He said his ultimate goal is to provide all the food at the salad bar, including lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers.
“We will be expanding our plant specimens. I hope to have two benches full of specimens,” McAfee said. “We have strawberry plugs coming in, and we’re going to have a rotational year-round strawberry production just like the lettuce.”
“I hope we can fully take over the salad bar,” Segura said. “We’ll be doing bigger plant sales, too.”
The students held their first plant sale last spring, McAfee said, and it was a success. All the money from fundraisers like that go back to the students, McAfee said, to keep growing the program or attend leadership events. McAfee said he’s excited to take the students to FFA’s annual state convention in April.
“Fundraisers help pay for them to travel to compete in different categories, and to learn from other teams and school districts,” McAfee said.
Eckman said he’s grateful for all the help the community has given the students so far.
“FFA is all about community, so if there’s any organizations we can help with, we want to know how to improve life around Eureka,” Eckman. “We want to help them, and we want them to help us promote our growth.”