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Let Us Garden - from The Messenger

April 20, 2019

chef with hydroponic farm

There's a garden full of small lettuce plants growing in the Fort Dodge Middle School in the glow of some very bright LED lighting.

In that garden, there isn't a single bit of soil.

Not one single grain.

Chef Nick Sells, with Taher Inc., which handles food service for the Fort Dodge Community School District, said that soil is simply not needed.

"There's no soil," Sells said. "The plants get all their food through nutrients in the water."

They do still need a place to root, though, and that's provided by small rockwool inserts that fit into the grower in individual holes. The plant's roots are kept constantly moist by a circulation pump that moves the nutrient rich water around.

The lettuce has been growing for about two weeks.

The hydroponic growing unit is distributed by Fork Farms, Sells said. They approached Taher's offices in Minneapolis who asked him if he would like one in Fort Dodge.

"I thought it would give the kids the opportunity to watch food grow," he said.

That fits in with his role as a nutrition educator. Among his many goals in the district is to introduce students to new foods, teach them proper nutrition and let them sample foods they may not have had the opportunity to try before.

The grower can provide a home to a variety of crops. Lettuce is just the first thing to be tried.

"You can grow anything you can grow above ground," he said. "Next time we might try some herbs, maybe some basil or cilantro."

The current crop of lettuce will be shared with students.

"When we do a build your own burger day," he said. "This is the lettuce we'll use."

The grower is situated in the food serving area. The students get to walk by it as they get their food each day at lunch and breakfast.

They've had lots of questions for Sells.

"What is it? How does it work? Why are you doing it?" he said.

He said there's been a healthy interest in it.

"I love that buzz of the kids getting excited about it," he said. "I think a lot of the kids think it (food) comes from the grocery store. We do a lot of farm to table education."

While the concept of hydroponic gardening isn't new, Sells is proud that he's helping break gardening ground in Iowa.

"We're one of the first schools in Iowa to get this off the ground," Sells said.

There is a second unit available that will soon be educating students and giving them fresh lettuce in another Fort Dodge school.

"We have a second hydroponic garden," he said. "We'll put that at Duncombe Elementary."

It might go beyond that.

"If it really takes off," he said. "Who knows?"

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