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OCONOMOWOC – Students at Oconomowoc High School are part of a national effort to establish pollinator habitat.

“This is the real deal,” said Marge Waite, who has taught agricultural and plant science courses in Oconomowoc since the 1980s. “It’s a timely project that people are interested in.”

Oconomowoc was one of 16 Wisconsin and Minnesota school districts that utilized grants to grow native prairie plants that sustain imperiled insect pollinators and monarch caterpillars. The grants are provided by Sand County Foundation and the Monarch Joint Venture, with additional support in Wisconsin from the We Energies Foundation.

Essential for crop pollination and ecological diversity, insect pollinators and monarch butterflies are at risk partly due to loss of farmland habitat. The pilot project encourages schools with greenhouses to grow vegetation like red milkweed, compass plants, rattlesnake master and purple coneflower, and transplant them in rural areas. With a commercial greenhouse and 74-acre school farm, Oconomowoc High School fit the bill.

In addition to helping pollinators, Waite says the project grows knowledge.

“I have a vision of it being slow with each class having a stake in it,” said Waite, who plans to involve students from natural resource, greenhouse and landscape courses. “If it’s all perfect all at once, there are no more learning opportunities.” 

Luke Peterson, 17, who serves as the school farm’s manager, said retiring a flood-prone portion of an alfalfa field from hay production fit into the farm’s student-directed yearly plan. He and six classmates planted the pollinator-friendly vegetation on July 24. That later-than-planned date (due to heavy spring rainfall) was chalked up as another lesson learned.

Going forward, the proximity of the prairie plants to an alfalfa field will provide examples of the importance of pollination.

“If you grow something, people remember it,” Waite added. “What I really hope is that in today’s high-tech society is that these kids are having fun doing things they didn’t think they would want to do.”

A row of compass plants, which reach five feet in height, were planted to act as a natural border for the pollinator habitat. River willow trees and irises will be planted in the lower area in years to come. The students are sharing the rest of this year’s seedlings with area farmers and a subdivision looking to attract pollinators to a wetland.

Waite said she and her students know this exhibition area has to look nice from the nearby road. They visited the University of Wisconsin’s West Madison Research Station for inspiration. Oconomowoc students have plans to develop a portion of the school farm into a public space with garden plots and asparagus patches to grow produce for the school lunch program.

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In future years there are plans to populate the farm’s fence rows and non-productive areas with native prairie plants. Such pollinator habitats serve double-duty by acting as a filter strip that slows erosion and protects water quality. That’s another reason why Sand County Foundation works with farmers to establish prairie filter strips.

Sand County Foundation is a national non-profit that champions voluntary conservation practices by farmers and ranchers to improve soil, water and wildlife habitat. Sand County Foundation is a member of the Monarch Joint Venture, which offers information on establishing monarch and pollinator habitat. For more on Sand County Foundation’s pollinator efforts, visit www.sandcountyfoundation.org/pollinator.

A Pollinator Habitat Curriculum Guide for Midwestern high school educators has been created by the University of Wisconsin’s Earth Partnership. Aligned with Common Core and Next Generation Science standards, the guide contains a set of activities appropriate for establishing, managing and monitoring habitat for monarchs, insect pollinators and grassland birds. 

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