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WDC seeks grant to build high-tunnel greenhouse

Wadena-Deer Creek Public Schools is asking area farmers to nominate the district for a $25,000 grant to build a high tunnel greenhouse.

The 24-by-72 foot high tunnel would be located directly east of the passive solar greenhouse, a smaller structure completed last fall. It would allow WDC to grow much more fresh produce for school lunches and expand agriculture education.

For WDC to qualify for the grant, which is awarded by the Monsanto Fund, it needs to be nominated by farmers in the district via by April 6.

"It takes less than five minutes," said Richard Muckala, WDC high school ag teacher.

On Tuesday morning, Muckala's plant science students harvested kale, spinach and lettuce in the passive solar greenhouse.

"It's March and we've already had about five crops of lettuce," Muckala said. "The high tunnel would be an extension to what we're already doing."

While the passive solar greenhouse operates throughout the winter, the high tunnel greenhouse would extend the growing season three months.

The existing greenhouse has only been open since November, but it's already filled to capacity. In addition to lettuce, spinach and kale, greenhouse coordinator Ed Lewis grows radishes, green beans, carrots, snap peas and strawberries.

"I've always enjoyed the freshness of the stuff you grow yourself," said Lewis, who is also the pastor at First Missionary Baptist Church in Wadena. "I love doing it so much. My gift is to give back what I grow out here."

He doesn't use any pesticides or herbicides and the only fertilizer he uses is fish emulsion.

Classes from all grade levels regularly stop by the greenhouse to learn about gardening and plant flowers.

"Ed's done a wonderful job really getting the whole school involved in this," Muckala said.

Lewis said it's important for children to learn that food doesn't originate in a grocery store; it starts in the ground.

"(Students) can take what they do here back home," he said, "and do the same thing with a few seeds, some soil and water."

The high tunnel greenhouse Holdingford School District built in 2012 has been a tremendous success, said Melissa Anderson, food service director for the Stearns County district.

"I think the main value is educational," she said. "It's really teaching kids to enjoy nutritious food."

Increasing interest in ag education, which has waned over the years, is a key goal of the Monsanto Fund grant, Muckala said. The state had 40 open teaching positions in the field last year, he said, but there were only 12 graduates from the University of Minnesota to fill them. "The job opportunities are wide open."