COLE CAMP — By now most Americans have heard of the Farm to Table movement where locally grown produce and other foods are produced and used by consumers locally. In Cole Camp, students have taken the concept one step further by growing food in their classroom for use in the school’s cafeteria.
The idea is one Cole Camp agriculture instructor and FFA sponsor Jake Montemayor had considered long before he began his teaching career.
“I have always had a love for agriculture, but since I didn’t have enough land to be a farmer, I did the next best thing and became an ag teacher,” Montemayor said with a smile. “Since starting at Cole Camp in 2014 I hoped to someday be able to grow the food my students ate.”
Montemayor explained he had the idea to teach new sustainable agriculture in the classroom for some time. While attending the Missouri FFA Convention last year Montemayor found his solution.
An organization called Juice Plus presented a demonstration about hydroponic food production systems.
“This hydroponic system allows us to grow fresh vegetables and herbs year-round,” Montemayor said. “Having (seen) this technology, I approached (Cole Camp Superintendent) Dr. (Tim) Roling about the idea of providing what my students grew in class to the cafeteria staff.”
With the help of a grant from the state FV-4, the district purchased a hydroponic tower and began production.
Eleven students are enrolled in the district’s crop science/horticulture class with an additional 14 taking Agricultural Sciences II.
Students use a hydroponic system that uses no soil, only water, to grow the produce and a Vermo Compost Center located in their school’s greenhouse. They primarily grow lettuce and chard for use on the school’s salad bar. They have also raised a variety of herbs including cilantro, basil and oregano. The cilantro is used by the food service staff in their popular black beans and salsa served every other week for lunch.
According to Montemayor and the students, their initial interactions providing produce have been a success. The cafeteria ran out of the lettuce the first day it appeared on the salad bar. The second harvest produced enough greens for two days. The students are looking forward to how much their third harvest this Thursday will yield.
It takes about two weeks to produce enough greens for the salad bar, according to Montemayor. He added an individual could probably make a salad every day if they wanted using the system.
“I think it is really cool that you don’t need any soil for the grower,” junior Wyatt Zimmerschied said of the system. “All it takes is water and a few chemicals.
“I don’t eat a lot of salad myself, but I do prefer this,” he said. “It tastes so much better than what is grown and then thrown in a bag and served.”
Kaci Barnes, a senior, agrees most of the students think it is “pretty cool to know they are eating things we helped to grow from our greenhouse.”
Barnes explained her grandmother at one time owned a flower shop which helped to cultivate her interest in the class and FFA. The work she is doing with the project will be used for her SAE this year.
It’s not all about food production; students are exploring alternative ways to control insects like white gnats by using environmentally safe solutions such as ladybugs and wasps. They also grow a number of house and bedding plants for their annual plant sale each May.
Giving his students exposure to as many opportunities for hands-on learning as possible is important to Montemayor.
“I think the interest here has always been in ag mechanics and there is nothing wrong with that,” Montemayor commented. “I think it is starting to shift here to horticulture.
“I want to be able to give my kids as many opportunities as possible,” he continued. “Not every student plans to go to college and if I can show them something like this that sparks an interest in them for them to consider for their future, it’s good.”