Watch: The best kept secret at Yellow Medicine: the greenhouse
You would never guess it's a greenhouse from the outside. In fact, some people think it's just an add-on to the Yellow Medicine East (YME) storage garage. "It's probably the best kept secret at Yellow Medicine East," said Ben Lecy, the indistrial arts teacher at YME.
The YME greenhouse in Granite Falls was built by the school's construction and trades class four years ago, after receiving a $100,000 grant from the Bush Foundation and a roughly $20,000 donation from Fagen Inc.
Lecy said that he's biased, "but it's probably the most unique thing we have. There aren't many of these anywhere in the world. When we were building this, there were two other facilities like this in the United States. Both of those facilities, you weren't allowed in. They were research facilities," he said.
Lecy said that when you think of a green house a garage looking building isn't usually the first thing that pops into your mind. "A lot of people think of a greenhouse as something with double glazed or glass sides or plastic sides. We have none of that. We control everything from the inside, from the light to the heat to the water, we collect our own water that's demineralized through our system. We monitor our CO2 levels. Everything is right here."
It almost has to be this way because consider the little amount of sunlight and warm weather during Minnesota's school year. Lecy said that a double glaze or hoop house style is at the mercy of nature. Lecy said that this greenhouse is built from extreme panels, it has concrete floors with high-carbon mats on the inside and in-floor heating. "The space has an R-value of 24 on the walls and I believe it's 42 in the ceiling. So it gives us 30s in R-value overall," he said.
The higher the R-value, the higher the insulation effectiveness. Each chamber has spectrum LED lighting at various photosynthetic active radiation levels. This is what the plants use for photosynthesis in this sunless setting. Each room has a mini-split which helps to regulate the humidity and the temperature. The space also has a lighting system that replicates sunlight. They can even program the lighting system so it replicates clouds floating overhead.
This state-of-the-art greenhouse has three chambers that can be closed off and climate controlled. The first chamber feels the coolest of the three and has equipment for hydroponic and aquaponic projects. This is also where the class frog hangs out. The next chamber is accommodated for succulent growing, a student's favorite. "It doesn't have to be all tomatoes and peppers and broccoli and cabbage, which are still my favorites, but let's try to grow some different things," said Lecy. He said that the student were amazed when they learned how simple it is to properly propagate succulents. "And pretty soon that became the rage. And so now we have a few 1,000 of them in the other room that we'll have next year, we do a sale each year."
The last chamber feels the most humid. Darrel Refsland, the YME ag instructor said that, especially in winter, when the 24X40-square-foot greenhouse is kept at 70 to 75 degrees, it's the hot spot on campus. "It's tropical," Refsland said. "You can feel the humidity in the room when you walk in right away."
"To be totally honest with you, this is kind of like our beachfront property," Lecy said. "When COVID tore us up last year, we didn't have the kids to start any seeds or do any of the transplanting so we did it all. We turned some music on and we just stayed out here. It's amazing. I can't explain it to you, but the lights that we have are so healthy for you, the vitamins you get from them and the air is nice and clean."
And in the dead of winter, "we actually considered renting out lawn chairs and just let people come up for a little while and gobble up a little bit of artificial sunlight," Lecy joked.
"Realistically as an ag teacher, you teach about production, whether it's livestock production or crop production," said Regsland. "It's pretty hard to go out and buy 40 acres of farmland. ... In here, we're raising a crop just like you would as a farmer, but on a smaller scale." Refsland said that the most surprising thing for him as a teacher is how little many students know about how to grow their own food. "They just think everything comes from a grocery store, they just go and get it." But after spending some times in the greenhouse and tasting the things they grow, "a light bulb comes on [and they] say, 'this tastes so good and I'd like to start doing a garden!'"
Refsland said that a goal they had is to make studying about science and agriculture come to life and help students grow things that they can take them home to their families and eat.
"I think it's really unique because not a lot of places have a greenhouse that you can go out and just kind of be hands on more, said Isaac, a junior at YME. "Because most places are stuck in a classroom, so it's nice to get out of the classroom and just see how all the plants are really grown."
Refsland thinks that the greenhouse is a student favorite. It is for the teachers. "I think it's every student's, and us as teachers, our favorite part of the day. It's our last hour of the day and we've been in dark, it's wintertime, it's cold out, it's darker out and we come out here and it's bright and sunny like summertime," he said. "It's just a real joy to come out to this building and be able to work with plants in the middle of winter."
Julius, a junior at YME, agreed. He said that he finds the space to be really peaceful. He said that a favorite thing he's learned has been transplanting. He and Brooke, also a YME junior, said that they're transplanting the jalapeno plants that haven't been killed by the fungus gnats. Yes, even in almost perfectly controlled conditions, the class is battling a gnat infestation.
Brooke said that the first thing she does when getting into the greenhouse is to check the plants for gnat damage. "We check on them and see if they're still living because we've had these bugs that have been coming in and eating them," she said. "Then we continue to put water in the bottoms of them with hydrogen peroxide and then we spray a dishwasher soap over the top of them."
But this, like everything else in this climate controlled classroom has been a learning opportunity. "I learned like hydrogen peroxide fights the bugs that kill the plant," said Julius. "You just mix it in with the water when you water the plants.
"We truly have an obligation to every generation coming up to teach them as we were taught by our ancestors, and that's how to feed yourself and how to get good healthy foods and at the same time, let them understand that plants are like the coolest medicine that we have," Lecy said. "We talk about the carbon cycle and all of those things and how we all fit into that and so just by being in here and being a part of this, you're getting tons of chemistry, you're getting your earth sciences, ecology, environmental awareness and good agricultural practices, all of those things. And so, for me this is this is absolutely the core of education in my life. This is what it's all about."
So don't judge a greenhouse by its cover. What may look like a storage garage to some could have potential for plant and student growth.