The future of growing is getting a test run at McCook High School.

Thanks to several grants, FFA horticulture students at MHS are growing different types of herbs and vegetables in 12 vertical aeroponic tower gardens. Looking like something out of a 1940s sci-fi movie, garage space formerly used for welding is now illuminated only by the ghostly glow of LED lights that surround each six-foot tall growing chamber. Tiny seedlings, planted in rock wool (chalk and rock), protrude out of 28 pockets on each tower, their roots dangling on the inside of the tower. Water infused with nutrients is pumped from the bottom of each tower to the top and trickles down inside the tower, three minutes on and 12 minutes off, around the clock, the McCook Gazette reported.

Aeroponic growing systems is the same technology NASA first used in the Mir space station and is catching on all over, including at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport that has an aeroponic tower garden. Studies have shown reduced water usage by 98%, faster growing times and increased yields.

In between the LED lights are FFA students, clockwise from left, Jaimee Randel, Whitney Knotts, Kayla Martin, Martika McKain, Kacy Anderson and ElsiAnna Rodewald, March 27, 2019. (Lorri Sughroue/McCook Gazette via AP)
In between the LED lights are FFA students, clockwise from left, Jaimee Randel, Whitney Knotts, Kayla Martin, Martika McKain, Kacy Anderson and ElsiAnna Rodewald, March 27, 2019. (Lorri Sughroue/McCook Gazette via AP)

For students at MHS, it’s been a lesson in growing from the ground up. Starting with two towers last year, grants allowed ag teacher Lauren Miller to purchase 10 more this year, with students constructing the towers themselves and troubleshooting problems.

“At their age, the hope is that they can learn how to grow food on their own,” Miller said while fostering an interest in plants in general.

Miller said she first heard of aeroponic gardens from a tower garden rep at an agriculture teacher workshop. With welding students now having classes at McCook Community College, the garage they used next to the ag classroom at MHS was being used for storage and Miller wanted to utilize the space. She ran the idea of using it for aeroponic garden towers past MHS principal Jeff Gross, who was on board with the idea. Miller said she then started applying for grants.

Along with keeping an eye on the growing plants, students check that the towers are working properly and the pH and nutrient levels of the plants. Several types of lettuce and kale are being grown, along with cilantro, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes. The towers have been very low maintenance so far, Miller said.

There will be a plant sale for the community at the end of the year and lettuce, a rapid grower, could be provided to local restaurants.

Grants to the McCook FFA program included $5,000 from Nebraska State FFA, $10,000 from McCook Community Foundation and $8,000 from Farm Credit Services of America. FFA students in the horticulture class are Kacy Anderson, ElsiAnna Rodewald, Martika McKain, Whitney Knotts, Kaylin Martin, Trey Barnhart, Jaimee Radel, and Kassadi Lemburg.

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