Justin Carter contributed to this blog.
Great accomplishments often require a cooperative effort. At Litchfield Public Schools, in Litchfield, Nebraska, staff and students have come together over the past school year to grow great success in their greenhouse program, and they have received statewide recognition for their hard work.
The Center for Rural Affairs, in collaboration with Nebraska FFA, piloted a program to acknowledge schools for their exemplary greenhouse education. This year, schools around the state of Nebraska applied for and competed to be recognized for their agricultural efforts and win the first Greenhouse to Cafeteria award.
Applicants were judged on diversity and quantity of produce grown, water and input management, student involvement, community involvement, food service director collaboration, creativity, and innovation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Litchfield Public Schools excels in these categories, and has been chosen as this year's Greenhouse to Cafeteria award runner-up.
Approximately 120 students from elementary through high school participated in Litchfield’s greenhouse program. Their greenhouse is privately owned by Trotter Incorporated and is used to raise produce for the school lunch program and to sell at farmers markets and grocery stores. They donate enough food to supply the school lunch program with locally grown produce for the entire year, and what can’t be kept fresh is processed to serve during the off-season.
Since the inception of the program, the greenhouse has been staffed full-time by Trotter Incorporated, with Gary Lawrence serving as the greenhouse manager. Gary and Litchfield’s head cook, Janice Reynolds, have joined forces to provide the school with fresh produce for the school, with help from the students.
During the school day, students assist in all aspects of production from preparing pots and gardens to planting, care, and harvesting produce. The school uses the greenhouse to teach students about aspects of gardening including controlling pests, fertilization, and irrigation.
Litchfield’s agriculture and FFA adviser, Brian Johnson, started working at the school after the greenhouse program was introduced, and has helped with it since his arrival.
“The program is effective due to the participation by the entire school,” he said. “The elementary grades are most involved, going there about every other week. The agriculture education students and some other classes in the junior and senior high school go down as needed. It’s a group effort.”
Produce is grown inside the greenhouse as well as in outdoor gardens. The students plant produce including potatoes, carrots, corn, cherry tomatoes, green onions, radishes, green beans, lettuce, peppers, cauliflower, squash, cucumbers, beets, asparagus, watermelon, raspberries, and more. Through their hard work, students are able to donate approximately 3,000 pounds of produce annually to the school lunch program.
Irrigation in the greenhouse is done with a hose and fertilizer injector as well as a drip system. The outdoor gardens are irrigated with sprinklers and underground drip systems, and soil moistures are checked daily.
All COVID-19 guidelines were followed when working in the greenhouse, and the outdoor gardens provided a perfect opportunity for students and staff to socially distance themselves while working. Precautions were taken to make sure produce was washed following harvest to help protect the consumers.
Justin Carter, project associate with the Center for Rural Affairs, helped create, design, and implement this award program.
“Litchfield is a shining example of food production in a greenhouse,” said Justin. “The supply of food they provide to their cafeteria as well as community outlets is above and beyond. Their model is what we're striving for in all our farm to school work in the state. Many don't believe production for the cafeteria is possible at small, rural public schools, but Litchfield proves them wrong.”
Students make presentations to the public during community educational nights, and the members of the public can buy produce and flowers from the greenhouse any time it is open.
Brian said the program would not succeed without the dedication of the students and greenhouse staff.
“Being selected as the runner-up is quite an honor and speaks volumes for the work that Gary does,” he said. “He provides learning experiences for all of the students in all aspects of production, and ensures quality produce is raised for the lunch program.”
With strong candidates like Litchfield Public Schools taking part in the program, the Greenhouse to Cafeteria award should continue to grow and expand its reach in the years to come.
“We want to inspire food production throughout Nebraska and cultivate a new generation of farmers,” said Justin. “It's our hope that the award will become a staple of the many agriculture awards handed out to schools each year.”
The award will be offered again in 2022. For more information, visit cfra.org/greenhouse-cafeteria or contact Justin at email@example.com.