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Waunakee chapter celebrates FFA week

Feb. 21, 2013 | 0 comments

WAUNAKEE

Members of FFA all over the state kicked off the week that celebrates their organization and the values it brings to agriculture. There were tractor parades, disrupted slightly by wintry blasts, and a whole host of other activities.

In Waunakee, the FFA chapter kicked off the week with a celebratory supper and meeting for members and alumni at Waunakee High School, giving everybody a chance to revel in a new greenhouse that is going to help the two agriculture instructors build a new horticulture emphasis in their curriculum.

Nick Brattlie, advisor to Waunakee FFA with colleague Rhonda Knapp, said the greenhouse was started in 2011 and has been used lightly since then as alumni and volunteers put the finishing touches on the interior of the facility.

He explained that the greenhouse was designed to collect rainwater and can store 1,500 in recycled white plastic barrels that are arranged on their sides under work benches around the greenhouse.

Last spring students used the greenhouse to grow vegetables and flowers, which were sold to staff, alumni and members of the community. Some of those plants were also donated to churches and community gardens that grow produce for local food banks.

Students also operate a community garden in a sunny spot on school grounds and grow vegetables as a public service for local food banks. Many of the plants used there were donated from the greenhouse, says Brattlie.

The freestanding 30-by-28 foot greenhouse stands alongside an older, lean-to greenhouse that was built without significant climate control. The older, smaller greenhouse is built over a south-facing brick wall that is great for absorbing heat, but there are no systems in it to dissipate it when too much heat builds up.

Waunakee FFA President Allie Zauner explains that the old greenhouse is still used though only when too much heat isn’t a downside. "The old greenhouse is a desert."

The benches inside that smaller unit are lined with cactuses and other heat-loving plants. The facility adjoins the ag classroom. It is used for aquaponic production of blue gill fish in a large tank and lettuce in a system that uses the fish nutrients as fertilizer.

"We cut all the lettuce to use in the meal for our banquet," she said. The fish were harvested and filleted as a classroom project.

Brattlie said the old greenhouse, being as warm as it is, functions well for germinating plants. "It does a great job of that.

"But our aim with the new greenhouse is to foster students in horticulture classes that will lead to industry careers. Careers in the plant industry are underestimated," the advisor said.

Everything from genetic plant research to actual greenhouse jobs to turf grass careers can be fostered now with the newer facility, he said. "There’s much more interest now with the new greenhouse. Student SAEs are now being done with the help of this greenhouse," he said, referring to Supervised Agricultural Experiences, a program for FFA members to document their learning.

The new facility has allowed more students to get more involved in plant-focused classes, which can sometimes be a tough sell to high school students.

"The plant-based classes don’t fill as fast because plants aren’t cute and fuzzy. Kids want to see things develop faster."

Brattlie said he and Knapp hope to bring the greenhouse into the curriculum more during the fall and spring as well as using it in intro to agriculture classes.

 

FUNDRAISING EFFORT

The completion of the greenhouse is the culmination of a long-running fundraising effort by the Waunakee FFA chapter as well as the happy coincidence of a school remodeling project.

Nearby Endres Manufacturing made a donation to the project through its community grant program, and past FFA chapter president Keith Dohm led members in a big push to raise money through a variety of projects.

Zauner explains that members raised about $10,000 and alumni members also contributed significantly to the fund. At first, the chapter thought about remodeling the old greenhouse to make it more suitable for classroom work and plant production.

It doesn’t have a significant venting system to dump out excess heat and there are no automated climate controls. "One of the ways we vent is to open the classroom door, but that’s not always efficient," Brattlie says.

As fundraising continued FFA members talked to members of the community who understand greenhouses and ideas quickly turned away from tearing down the old greenhouse or trying to modify it.

Brattlie said Stan Skolasky, a former commercial orchid grower in the area, was instrumental in helping sort through the choices and point them toward a new unit. He told them the old greenhouse could still work for aquaculture, aquaponics and other projects and helped design the systems that ended up in the new one.

When a school remodeling project came in under budget the school district had money left that needed to be used on capital purchases, Brattlie said. If it weren’t for that, along with the fundraising of the students and alumni and their focus on the new greenhouse project, and support from the community, the state-of-the-art unit probably wouldn’t exist, he adds.

"We’d still be fundraising if it hadn’t been for the school building fund," says Zauner.

Skolasky consulted on the project as it developed, she said, even helping alumni decide how to build the benches that are used to hold plants inside the building and building potting bench boxes that help contain the planting medium and keep the space neater.

Zauner said that Waunakee FFA members, alumni and school officials talked to other schools that had greenhouses to find out what worked and what didn’t and incorporated those ideas into their plan.

 

HIGH TECH

During a tour of the greenhouse, Brattlie explained that the radiant heat all around the nearly square building comes from the school’s main boiler and there are sensors throughout the greenhouse that regulate fans and various vents to automatically control the indoor temperature.

The building has a masonry base and polycarbonate panels to let the light in.

Logan Wells, of Monroe FFA is State FFA Vice President for Section 5, and was at Sunday’s meeting of the Waunakee FFA chapter and alumni. He said he has not seen many greenhouses like this in his travels around the state.

"It opens up a lot of opportunities for students who can have a chance to experience what it’s like to work in this kind of great facility," he said.

Skolasky had suggested that the greenhouse be freestanding so there would be total control of the climate in the unit and that’s what they ended up with, says Brattlie.

The rainwater collection system is installed in part of the greenhouse and they have the option of adding it on the other side, he said. The greenhouse is also set up to use the city water supply if that becomes necessary.

Zauner is excited about how the greenhouse dovetails with the school’s community garden and agriculture classes as more students lend a hand weeding, planting and harvesting vegetables.

Even elementary school students have experienced what it’s like to work in the vegetable plots. "As they do that more and more it helps them realize where their food comes from."

The Sunday evening meeting of the alumni and members included a meeting and supper in the ag classroom. Those quarterly meetings allow the adults and students to meet and learn from each other, said Zauner, and contribute greatly to building interest in projects like the school greenhouse.

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