Growing New Farmers: Bringing Controlled Environment Agriculture to Schools

Nov. 10, 2022
Nutrient film technique system growing lettuce and basil in the print shop of OSD

Each of the 88 counties of Ohio houses an Ohio State University Extension Office. One of these resourceful offices is located right here in the heart of the Columbus campus on the Waterman Agricultural and Natural Resources Laboratory. Among the many great people who work out of the Franklin County Extension Office is, Tim McDermott, who specializes in urban agriculture and Local Food Systems. Recently, one of Tim’s ventures has taken his focus all around the state of Ohio.

A project that aims to span all over the state, has to start somewhere & have a clear goal at its core – in this case in Tim’s words that’s to “support urban schools with our knowledge in order to create the next generation of skilled agricultural workers”. The we he refers to includes many helpful folks – including several frequent collaborators from our Horticulture & Crop Science Department: Mark KroggelDr. Kubota & Dr. KloosterResearch and teaching go hand and hand & Tim is quick to point out his collaborators assist because they enjoy it & know students will get a ton of value out of it, as opposed to it’s just a part of their expected roles here at Ohio State.

So how exactly are they aiming to create the next generation of skilled agricultural workers? By bringing Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) into elementary, middle & high school students’ classrooms!

Tim is working with Mark and Dr. Kubota to get hydroponic systems (a form of CEA) into all the schools and ensure that the curriculum is age appropriate. By developing & introducing the ag career curriculum and clear career pathways to students – they will effectively be creating the next generation of skilled agricultural workers to address the projected shortages in the workforce!

Tim McDermott (front left center) working with Dr. Klooster's class

Additionally, Tim works with Dr. Klooster to help students understand ways to grow plants in urban agricultural systems and how to utilize whatever space is available. They do this by on-farm based research – including a linear research study of growing blueberries in grow bags. Projects like this provide value to students by engaging them and showing them how to solve problems with applied research. Students also get to participate in something different from their day to day by visiting Waterman (where the berry study is being conducted).

Luckily, Tim had the time to sit down & shed some light onto how exactly they’re all working to bring CEA into local schools:

Why focus on urban ag?

The mission of extension is to radiate the knowledge to the community. We’re invested in the community & urban small business ag. The next generation of farmers is coming from urban environments not rural. We want to grow new farmers by having students go to school and actively participate in farming related things every day. The indoor and outdoor growing system we help them incorporate into their daily classroom routine has no extra time needed outside school hours. The kids are able to do it all and reap the benefits of experiential learning.

Where are you building these programs?

There are roughly 37,000 kids in elementary school within Columbus school district (Franklin County). Currently, we are bringing hydroponics into 50 elementary schools within the district. In the next 3 years we’re aiming to be in 100 schools throughout Franklin County & to continue expanding from there – because we need to continue expanding the project to move the needle.

The elementary students will focus on the basics of CEA, in middle school they will start to do monitoring & in high school they will be running a miniaturized version of what you’d find at the industry level. Generally, a supplemental curriculum is utilized once students are past elementary.

Tell us about one of these schools

For starters, Mark & I are friends as well as colleagues & we’ve been lucky enough to be invited to partner together for the past couple years to get CEA into the Ohio School for the Deaf (OSD). OSD has students of all ages from early childhood through high school. A student’s sensory abilities can provide challenges for entering the work force at times – but that is not an issue that holds true for the agriculture industry. The CEA industry is consistently looking for anyone with a background with the systems – these are desirable jobs that students can get.

The print shop currently being transformed into a high wire production area for tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers

While the school currently has a small greenhouse & space outside - the costs of building a CEA greenhouse is nearly $100k; whereas converting any existing room is closer to $30k (in addition to the cost savings repurposing a space is very common in urban ag). We opted to convert OSD’s old unused print shop into a haven for a fully functional indoor controlled environment ag hydroponic system that the students can learn to run themselves.

We’ve most recently been working on installing the grow lights – so that the students will be able to grow anything they want. Additionally, there are nutrition systems, bucket systems & high wires - with the goal they’ll learn a wide variety of CEA systems and be able to go and get a great job with their skills.

Tomatoes in a hydroponic bucket system in the old greenhouse

You can locate an Ohio State Extension Office near you or learn more about extension anytime through the OSU Extension Website.