For a second straight year, high school students from Euclid, Wickliffe and Mentor are growing crops in a unique environment that not only teaches them about the future of farming, but also offers insights into the business side of agriculture.
Some people have called the new technology being taught at Euclid City Schools, “farm in a box,” but it could also be implemented to eliminate a cultural phenomenon called “food deserts.” Eventually, it might find its way into our nation’s space programs.
This is one high school career tech program where the sky is not the limit.
Using hydroponic technology and computer-controlled lights, the program teaches students how to grow crops in a container that saves space by allowing the vertical growing of produce.
According to Chris Papouras, superintendent of the Euclid City School District, the program was developed through educational partnerships as well as the insight of the Euclid City School District.
“We did the purchasing of a lot of the equipment from a company called Freight Farms,” he says. “Our instructor also did some professional development with them.”
Founded in 2012, Freight Farms debuted the first vertical hydroponic farm built inside an intermodal shipping container, with the mission of democratizing and decentralizing the local production of fresh, healthy food. Since its inception, Freight Farms has refined its product offering to something it calls the Greenery S container farm, which is what is being used in the Euclid program.
The Euclid City Schools and board approved the purchase and also received help from the Euclid Schools Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the schools. The Lake Shore Compact, which is a part of the district’s Career Tech programs, also contributed dollars.
“The money funneled through the Lake Shore Compact comes in the form of federal dollars and is meant to support our Career Tech programming,” explains Karen Brown, assistant superintendent of the Euclid City School District, who also coordinates the district’s career tech programs. “We were able to use some of that funding since our program is open to students from Wickliffe and Mentor as well.”
Containerized vertical farming technology is already enjoying commercial success on a national level by a company headquartered in Cincinnati called 80 Acres Farms, which recently expanded its partnership with grocery giant Kroger to deliver fresh produce.
Starting with just a single Kroger store in Cincinnati in 2019, 80 Acres Farms grew its reach into more than 300 Kroger stores across Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky by 2021. This past August, 80 Acres announced its plans to serve about 1,000 Kroger stores across the Midwest and Southeast.
To give you an idea of the efficacy of this new farming method, 80 Acres’ first farm was only a quarter of an acre. Yet it could produce the same amount of food as an 80-acre farm — hence its moniker.
80 Acres uses 100% renewable energy to create a fully sustainable environment to grow crops free of pesticides, while also eliminating what it calls “food miles” or the distance it takes to get food from the farm to the plate. Eliminating those food miles was a major consideration when choosing the program for high school students, says Papouras.
“When we started doing our research, we didn’t realize how complex it was getting something from the farm to the plate,” he says. “I didn’t realize that sometimes it takes 1,500 miles for that to happen. The question then became, ‘How do we make sure that people are able to get food? How do we offer a learning program that can help our students learn a new technology that will actually help shape the future of the world?’”
“This fit perfectly in with the mission of our urban agriculture program. The bigger question being, ‘How do we provide food, especially fresh produce, for communities and neighborhoods where fresh produce is not as easily accessible?’
The container allows students to grow crops on a sustainable, industrial scale. Students sell some of the crops to local restaurants to offset the costs of the program while offering leftovers to local foodbank programs. However, the lessons are not confined to using this new technology to simply produce food.
“It’s also adding to their experience by offering a deeper understanding of the business side of urban agriculture,” says Brown. “While our students have sold crops they have been able to grow on our grounds, the volume with which they are able to produce crops from the Freight Farms container expands their business education. Our instructor has made business connections, and not just with charitable organizations, but with restaurants. So, our students are beginning to better understand supply and demand as well as sales. This is getting them hands-on experience on the business side of agriculture.”
According to Brown, students in the urban agriculture program number about 35, while another 45 students participate in the Euclid Schools’ culinary program.
“Another interesting aspect would be to have students who are farming supply produce to students who were doing the cooking and serving,” says Papouras.
“It’s all a part of a strong push to make our students realize that there are different pathways in school — not just those that lead to graduation, but many that lead to success in life. We are trying to be much more in tune with matching education with careers and jobs of the future.”
The use of containerized farming in the production of food for our nation’s space program is a natural and obvious outgrowth of the new technology. The more immediate impact, of course, is the feeding of the multitudes of hungry people here on Earth who are food deprived or food challenged.
While both Brown and Papouras would not comment on what the future might hold for students, it might not be too long before a graduate of the program embarks on an entrepreneurial endeavor that rivals that of 80 Acres Farms, which has enjoyed so much success in Cincinnati.