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In Full Bloom

MFA grant helps Willow Springs ag students experience the growing cycle from start to finish

Many students will say that spending time outside the classroom is where they would rather be during the school day.
At the Willow Springs School District in south-central Missouri, high school agriculture students are realizing that wish and benefiting from the experience. Agricultural instructors and FFA advisers Grant Talburt and Shiloh Walden offer an engaging learning opportunity that involves lessons outside of the classroom and inside the greenhouse.

When Walden and Talburt started teaching at Willow Springs six years ago, they saw incredible potential to expand the ag curriculum with the two existing greenhouses. “The ag department has been operating Greenhouse 1 for more than 20 years, and we knew it needed some work,” said Walden. “Greenhouse 2 has been operational for the six years that Grant and I’ve been here, but we knew we could do more.”

To help fund some of the greenhouse enhancements that were needed, Talburt applied for an MFA Incorporated Charitable Foundation grant in 2022, an opportunity he learned about from Dawn Sigman, MFA Willow Springs Agri Services manager.

StudentsAbove top: Teachers from the Willow Springs School District stop by the greenhouse to purchase plants before the big sale.   Above: Michael Williams, left, and his agricultural instructor, Shiloh Walden, search the aquaculture tank for the tilapia they are raising. The fish waste is used as a fertilizer for the plants in the greenhouse.“We have a great relationship with our local MFA,” said Talburt. “Dawn was interested in selling plants at MFA that our students grow in the spring. We had some plants, but we didn’t have the facilities to accommodate a true wholesale and retail operation. MFA’s grant, plus one through the Missouri Department of Agriculture, allowed us to make the many upgrades needed to expand our operation and the educational opportunities for our students.”

MFA’s $5,000 grant was used to update Willow Spring’s plant science curriculum by modernizing the current greenhouses. Improvements include the installation of irrigation controls, capillary matting, cooling panels and hydroponics.

“It’s been tremendous,” Walden said. “The grant has helped fund something really valuable to our students. While preparing our kids for a future career in plant science, we are using up-to-date technology and allowing them to learn in a real greenhouse setting.”

The school’s agriculture program fosters the development of a multitude of skills. At the start of the school year, the greenhouse management class usually has eight to 14 students.

“We start with greenhouse safety, teaching how they function, how they operate, different tools, different parts—basically how it fully works,” Walden explained. “A safety test must be passed, then we get to the greenhouses and start right away.”

Once in greenhouse, the real fun begins as the students are taught multiple planting techniques. “We propagate our hanging baskets, usually in September or October, through stem and leaf cuttings,” Walden said. “We grow a lot of different plants using that method. We also plant from seeds and cuttings purchased from other vendors.”

During the fall and winter seasons, the greenhouses are popping with greens and vegetables for staff and student consumption. Throughout the late fall, winter and early spring, the greenhouse classes provide fresh, new produce for the school’s cafeteria.

“The fall is when we start from seed the greens and vegetables that we grow for the school cafeteria,” said Walden. “The students harvest the greens and then wash, rinse and bag them. It’s been a really awesome learning experience.”

“We supply the school’s cafeteria with enough vegetables and salad greens for a nice salad bar,” Talburt added. “We are harvesting every two weeks, and we’re always planting more seeds.”

When spring hits, the growing season is in full swing. The first week of April is usually when the greenhouse opens for retail sales to the public.
“We don’t spend much time in the classroom at that point because it’s all out here in the lab,” Walden explained. “The students learn useful, hands-on skills that they can take with them anywhere and get a job.”

“The greenhouse experience for our students is extremely important,” Talburt added. “It teaches them so many life skills, like time management, maintenance and facility management, and the importance of proper presentation for customers.”

Finances and budgeting also come into play. Students are responsible for looking at the operational costs and determining what price is needed to be profitable when selling the products wholesale and retail.  

The MFA grant also enabled Talburt and Walden to update and improve the aquaculture system, which allows students to learn how to produce tilapia.

“When I got here, there was an aquaculture system that did not function,” Walden said. “That was one of the first tasks that I took on. We’ve had several different fish species over the years to try to figure out how to best utilize the aquaculture program. Right now, we have about 30 tilapia that are maturing. We hope to breed them and then be able to have a school of fish that we can routinely harvest from.”

The class uses the fish waste as free organic material to fertilize their plants and cut down on greenhouse expenses.

The community plays a vital role in the success of the school’s ag program, Walden said. Each spring, MFA and a local grocery store buy a variety of plants wholesale from the school and, in turn, sell the locally produced plants to their customers.

“The kids really get to see the whole circle,” Talburt said. “They develop a product, they prepare the product, and it goes to a market where it’s sold.”

“We are selling a quality product, and our students are putting in the hard work,” Walden added. “The community loves to support us, and we are able to raise money to go to leadership conferences and the FFA national convention. With the grants and community support, we have been able to turn the greenhouse project into something that we could only dream of, and I think it’s only going to get better from here.”

The MFA Incorporated Charitable Foundation’s mission is to improve the quality of life in rural communities by supporting organizations that are dedicated to education, youth and problem-solving. Since its establishment in November 2005, the Foundation has awarded more than $2.3 million and is proud to create partnerships within the rural communities it serves. For more information on grant opportunities, visit mfa-inc.com/About/Charity.

Read more of the June/July 2024 Today's Farmer Magazine HERE.

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