By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
Work is nearing completion on a greenhouse at Tucumcari High School that will grow tomatoes now and other crops later using hydroponic methods that grow plants without soil.
The greenhouse, which cost $300,000 to build, is one of the final phases of the $20 million project that included THS’s new building, renovations to the Snake Pit gymnasium and other school construction projects, Superintendent Aaron McKinney said.
About 75 percent of the funds for the high school construction projects were provided through the Public School Capital Outlay Committee of the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority.
The floor of the hydroponic greenhouse is dominated by ranks of plastic containers filled with perlite, a mineral that can support a tomato plant’s weight while retaining air and water to promote growth. Two plastic tubes about as thick as large soda straws come out of each container. One of these tubes will provide water; the other, liquid nutrients that will feed and water the plants as they grow, McKinney said. Nutrients will be stored in containers at the side of the greenhouse.
Metal wires about 10 feet above the floor show how high each plant is expected to grow, McKinney said.
Each plant is expected to produce about 45 pounds of tomatoes a year, he said, and since there are about 250 containers, the yield could be in excess of five tons a year.
In addition to the high-tech growing equipment, the greenhouse is equipped with temperature and humidity monitoring equipment along with heaters and evaporative coolers. McKinney said the greenhouse also includes water softeners that prevent mineral buildup and help watering and air temperature control equipment last longer.
The real value of the greenhouse is education, McKinney said. Students will learn about plant biology and pick up marketable technical skills as they maintain and monitor the tomato crops, McKinney said.
Leonard Lauriault, a plant scientist at the New Mexico State University Agricultural Experiment Station said the hydroponic greenhouse promises to be a very valuable educational tool. Students will learn lessons related to temperature and humidity control, water conservation and plant fertility, he said.
McKinney used pollination as an example of one of the unique lessons available from growing hydroponic plants in a greenhouse. Since bees are impractical, he said, greenhouse operators have developed a pollination technique that uses electric toothbrushes to redistribute pollen among the plants. That, McKinney said, will be one of the tasks students will perform.