Taking the classroom outside
NRCS grant will help Ennis schools greenhouse and gardens
ENNIS—By the time next spring rolls around, students at Ennis Schools will be well on their way to growing a bumper crop of produce, and will have gotten a much closer look at the pollinators that help facilitate that process.
The schools’ new greenhouse was bought and installed near the vocational tech building by the Madison Farm to Fork program earlier this year. It currently protects little more than a patch of dandelion-infested grass, but thanks to a grant from Montana Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS), plans are well underway to fill the space will raised beds, warming lights and countless seeds, all for the benefit of local students.
Ennis Schools has already created an advisory committee of volunteers from Farm to Fork, Madison Conservation District and the community—most of whom are greenhouse gardeners themselves around the county—to help in planning for everything the greenhouse will need, from irrigation to seeds and everything in between. The grant, facilitated by MCD, will also turn one corner of the greenhouse into an observation hive of honey bees for students to watch over the changing seasons.
The pollinators will go about their business in the school’s gardens on the other side of campus, but placing the hive in the greenhouse was an intentional decision, keeping the bees as far as possible from the school playground while offering easy access for the insects to get in and out of their hive, in a location where students can easily observe them.
NRCS has a designated pollinator program, seeking to slow the recent decline of bee populations nation- and worldwide via educational and ecological projects like this one. Pollinator Grants and Bee Hive Grant provide learning opportunities for students about pollinators and their role the local ecosystem.
“We initially applied for the grant for the observation beehive without thinking as much about the greenhouse,” says Farm to Fork’s Janet Dochnahl. “It’s just the latest in a series of steps we’ve been taking.”
Farm to Fork’s main mission is education, says Dochnahl—education about food, food systems and growing. They’ve collaborated with Ennis Schools on everything from the school lunch program and culinary arts classes to after-school programs. Outfitting the greenhouse and helping to facilitate the NRCS grant is the latest in a long line of projects they’ve been involved in.
Ennis culinary arts teacher Jamie Diehl says the expanded greenhouse and pollinator project will serve several purposes for students.
“In terms of the culinary arts piece, the initial thought behind the greenhouse was to grow as much produce as possible for the lunchroom, specifically the salad bar,” she says. “I would like for my students to be able to experiment with different types of growing processes and foods as their interests fluctuate.”
Eventually, Diehl says, the goal would be to have an expansive enough harvest during the summer to preserve some of the crops for future lunchroom use, like making tomato sauce that could be frozen and saved for the school year. Plus, Ennis will be able to expand its participation in Montana State University’s Harvest of the Month program, which showcases the efforts of communities and schools around the state in home-growing healthy and local foods.
Schools that participate in Harvest of the Month focus on a different homegrown item each month, usually following the natural cycles of what grows during each season. They then harvest and serve those crops in some way at their school.
Diehl says Ennis has participated in the Harvest of the Month program since its inception several years ago, allowing elementary-age students (helped along by high schoolers) to experience what it’s like growing their own food and—literally—tasting the fruits of their labors.
And the benefits of the new grant will reach far beyond the bounds of the school year. The greenhouse and gardens will also be heavily used by Ennis’s GROWW program: Gardens, Resources, Outdoors, Wildlife and Watersheds.
GROWW offers programs for students like the Good Thymes Camp, weeklong summertime experiences for children in grades K-5 to get involved in outdoor activities learning where their food comes from and the unique environment they live in. The program also facilitates trips to Yellowstone for older students to dive into how geology, ecology and other branches of natural science came together to create such a unique ecosystem.
It will take some time to really get the project rolling, with preparations planned through at least February. But the NRCS grant means that students and community members will be able to come together through the entire process, laying the foundation to open an entirely new, hands-on learning opportunity for Ennis Schools.