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Cesia Gaitan, foreground, and Anne Clark tend to new plants Monday in the windowless greenhouse at Yellow Medicine East in Granite Falls. Tom Cherveny / Tribune

MN high school builds windowless greenhouse

GRANITE FALLS, Minn. — There's never a cloudy day in the greenhouse built by students at the Yellow Medicine East High School in Granite Falls, Minn.

Nor is there a single window pane.

Specially engineered LED lights provide all the photons needed for photosynthesis in this totally enclosed, 1,200-square-foot greenhouse. Electric-powered, carbon mesh pads under the soil and in-floor heating pamper the plants with just the right amount of warmth. Monitors make it possible to keep the humidity and even the level of carbon dioxide just right too.

"Everything is state-of-the-art efficiency,'' said Jacob Suter, YME science instructor.

The public is getting its first glimpse of the new greenhouse this week as Suter, agricultural instructor Darrel Refsland and their students offer their garden-ready plantings of tomatoes and peppers for sale.

The young plants are YME's first to be bathed in the light of the artificial sunlight created by the racks of LED lights developed by a Texas-based company, Fluence Bio Engineering. Students in instructor Barry Weidauer's carpentry class built the greenhouse located in a corner of the school parking lot late last year, using specially insulated panels to enclose it and divide it into three sections. Students in Refsland's mechanics class built — and powder-coated — the metal stands holding the plants.

All of this was made possible by a $100,000 Bush Foundation grant, and approximately $20,000 in donations from Ron and Diane Fagen and their family, according to the instructors.

All of what will be possible is yet to be known. The two instructors have a hard time containing the excitement they share for this unique classroom and laboratory. They know of no other such greenhouse at any other high school in Minnesota, and perhaps the country.

Educators at YME had initially been planning to use the Bush Foundation grant to develop a passive solar greenhouse.

That changed last year when Refsland and his FFA students toured a Monsanto research facility in St. Louis, Missouri. They discovered the company's totally contained, LED-lit greenhouse. Refsland later learned of similar research facilities in Mitchell, South Dakota, and Storm Lake, Iowa.

Research is among the goals for the YME greenhouse too. The instructors want to use one of its three sections for research by students on projects of their choosing. Students in science and agricultural classes will be able to use the greenhouse as both laboratory and classroom, they said.

The instructors intend to use another section for hydroponic and aquaponic projects. They plan to add separate tanks to raise tilapia, koi, perch and shrimp. Hydroponically raised plants will filter the wastes from the fish.

Refsland believes his students are open to ideas like raising shrimp in Minnesota as part of our future farm economy.

"Your next generation is going to bite on it a lot better than the older generation," he said. "They are still cows, hogs and corn and soybeans. I don't know they are going to buy into fish production, but if you can show kids in high school, expose them to it, I think that generation is probably going to be able to do that."

He's already in correspondence with a company that is seeking to raise shrimp in Luverne and possibly Marshall.

Likewise, he and Suter believe more vegetables and greens will be raised indoors in the future, possibly in urban settings. No one is making more farmland, and concerns are being raised today about the environmental consequences of converting Minnesota pine woods and Brazilian rainforest for crop production.

And yes, some of what is produced in this greenhouse could someday be served to YME students as part of the school lunch program.

Suter said these and other plans are all in the works for next year as curriculum is developed for what the greenhouse makes possible. There are just so many different opportunities for hands on learning in this facility, he said.

There's no doubt that students share their enthusiasm. Refsland said his seniors are bummed about missing out on it, with a few telling him they wish they could come back next year.

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