The classrooms are dark and hallways are empty at Xavier Middle School these days, as statewide school closures extend through the remainder of the school year to fend off the coronavirus.
But inside Cindy Foss’ fifth grade classroom, leafy greens continue to sprout from a tall, white plastic structure circling a tower of lights.
It’s a hydroponic growing unit from Fork Farms — an agriculture technology company based in Appleton — that uses a combination of nutrient solutions, water and LED lights to grow plants, rather than the soil, water and sunshine outside.
The unit was donated to St. Francis Xavier Catholic Schools in February, and it was later placed in Foss’ classroom. The students planted seeds, lovingly attending to them daily as they waited impatiently for them to germinate.
Finally, after germination in early March, the students were able to transfer their plants to the hydroponic unit, where they’d grow into a crop of leafy greens. They eagerly awaited their first harvest, referring to the unit as “Brooke” or “the time machine” and naming plants other goofy names like “giraffe,” Foss recalled with a laugh.
But on March 13, Gov. Tony Evers mandated all schools shut down — at first, for two weeks. Then, the closures became indefinite. Last week, Evers declared schools would continue to be closed for the rest of the school year.
“We had just gotten the Fork Farm unit going and the kids were really enjoying watching everything grow,” said Chris Goulet, STEM coordinator for the school system. “I think we were all really disappointed thinking that when we had to leave school that that Fork Farm was just going to perish.”
Goulet recalled she was in tears that day, thinking of all the work Foss’ class had put into the plants, and how the class was going to show off the first crop at a STEM night she’d planned for March 26. The rest was going to go to the school salad bar or food pantries.
But then Joe Linsmeier stepped in. As Xavier Middle School’s facilities director, he was the only staff member allowed on campus during the closures, and he offered to take care of the unit.
And Linsmeier seems to be the perfect person for the job — he happens to have grown up on a farm and knows a thing or two about growing things, Goulet said.
Every day, Linsmeier checked the water, tested the pH level and added more nutrients as needed. He’d regularly send photos of the unit’s progress to Foss, who shares the images with her class over email and phone video chats as she teaches remotely.
“It was really difficult for the kids that they weren’t going to be able to really learn how to take care of these plants. We’d been planning all these jobs and each person was going to play a different part in it all,” Foss said. “Now kids are emailing me like ‘How’s Brooke doing?’ ‘Are we going to do this next year?'”
By last week, the unit had produced over 20 pounds of leafy greens that were donated to St. Joseph’s Food Program in Menasha.
After the first crop, Goulet assumed she’d need to go to the school to show Linsmeier how to shut down the unit until school begins again in the fall.
But Linsmeier wasn’t having it, telling Goulet: “A good farmer always grows as many crops as he can in the season.”
Linsmeier planted a second crop last week, and the school system plans to continue donating its crops to St. Joseph’s.
Originally Published by: Samantha West, Appleton Post-Crescent on April 21, 2020 | Article Link