High Tunnels and Hydroponics Enhance Learning

High Tunnels and Hydroponics Enhance Learning, Thanks to Corporate Mission Fund

Signs of Growth

At the beginning of the school year at the North Carolina School for the Deaf in Morganton, elementary school children are gathered in a high tunnel, paying close attention to Agriculture Teacher Reid Ledbetter as he demonstrates how to plant broccoli seeds. When it’s their turn, they dive right in, eager to contribute to getting the garden started.

Sowing seeds is far more than the first steps in planting a garden for these children, it’s the beginning of a journey that packs the marvels of gardening, math and science, and life lessons into a new experience for most of them. According to Reid, it’s thanks to the Carolina Farm Credit Corporate Mission Fund. Visual learning is paramount for students who are Deaf or hard of hearing.

While school gardens are popular, they can be challenging because by the time children plant a garden in early spring, school in nearly out for the summer and they miss out of much of the gardening season. But a high tunnel changes all that. With a Corporate Mission Fund grant in 2018-2019, Reid was able to secure $5,000 to add a high tunnel to the school grounds.

“The high tunnel lets us start gardening earlier,” he says. “It’s a really big help because we can actually do the gardening during our school year. The students get to go through the entire process from the planting of the seed to the harvest, which is pretty rare to be able to do that.”

The high tunnel stretches 96 feet long, 20 feet wide and 12 feet tall. Reid says it was an integral part of building an agriculture program at the school. “The school had a dairy years ago and students worked on the farm but they never actually had curriculum-based agriculture.” That changed in 2018 when Reid, with agricultural degrees from N.C. State, several years of teaching, and experience as a dairy farmer under his belt, was hired to teach agriculture.

In addition to the high tunnel, in which the students grow broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, tomatoes, and peppers, they plant a mixed greens and turnip patch outside in the fall and get a summer vegetable garden started in the spring.

“These students had never seen any of this before, they had never been exposed to it,” explains Reid. “They never had this type of hands-on thing here before. They do the basic vocabulary in sign language – farm animals and a few plants – but the rest of that vocabulary in American Sign Language is all new to them.”

Agriculture is opening new worlds for these students.

Sharing the Harvest

The residential and day school, which has 71 students from 43 counties, has been in operation since 1894. It runs a food bank for families of some of its students. The high school classes contribute to the food bank while learning various steps in packaging greens to share. For example, they pick the greens, wash them, cut into pieces, run through a salad sling to remove water, pack into zip top bags, and label. “Every Friday we send food home with families,” explains Reid.

Second Grant Enables School to Purchase Hydroponics System, Expand STEM Curriculum

Because of the high tunnel and its contribution to enhanced learning, the school applied for and received another Corporate Mission Fund grant in 2020-2021 for a hydroponics system.

“The hydroponic system adds depth to our program,” says Reid.

The agricultural mechanics class assembled the system which required studying diagrams, gluing joints, and putting trays together.

Elementary to high school classes grow Bibb lettuce. Elementary students plant seeds, transplant seedlings to the hydroponics system, watch the plants grow, and help harvest the crop in 35 to 40 days. The high school students help maintain it. “Every day they check the pH and the nutrient content of the water, add fertilizer or water if needed, and keep records of the pH and nutrient content.”

The agriculture curriculum immerses students in STEM-rich (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) lessons. Tending a crop from seed to harvest makes those lessons more relatable and memorable.

Enhanced Learning

Because students at the School for the Deaf are visual learners, both the high tunnel and the hydroponics system help facilitate hands-on opportunities. “If you take them through the process and show them the process, they grasp it,” says Reid. “That is education that is going to carry over. It’s a step-by-step process and we have to go through the steps to get to the end. It’s not a PowerPoint. Everything we do is visual, hands-on.”

The benefits include greater understanding of where their food comes from, growing analytical skills, and learning life skills such as teamwork and responsibility.

“They are going to use most of these skills,” says Reid. “They can do most of them at home and these skills are valuable to know how to do. They may never go to a livestock market or even own a cow, but they can plant a plant or have a small garden or know about food to shop at the grocery store.”

Growing Leadership Skills

Another benefit of the program leads to an extracurricular opportunity. The school chartered an FFA chapter in 2018, becoming the first Deaf FFA chapter in North Carolina and the third in the nation.

“The number one thing about FFA is to learn leadership and that is getting up in front of people, standing and presenting, participating in contests. A lot of that preparation and education needed for contests comes from their actual doing in the high tunnel, doing in the garden, doing in the hydroponics,” says Reid.

“Without the Corporate Mission Fund we would never have had a high tunnel. We would never have had that Nutrient Film Technique hydroponics system from CropKing. The Corporate Mission Fund made all that possible.”

More About the Corporate Mission Fund

Read more about how nonprofits and students can apply for grants and scholarships respectively in Blog 1 of this series.

By Leah Chester-Davis