THS greenhouse nurtures science

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Junior Katrina Smith adds supports for tomato-bearing branches.

By Steve Hansen QCS Managing Editor The Tucumcari High School students are seated on wheeled garage benches doing one of two things. Some are propping up branches that carry tomatoes with plastic hangers. The others are using automatic toothbrushes to do the work of honeybees, transferring pollen between flowers on the tomatoes. It’s science, says Jan Klinger, their teacher, and the classroom is THS’s new greenhouse, a $300,000 laboratory and potential income producer for science and agriculture students at THS. The tomato plants, which are about two-and-a-half months old, are about chest-high to a six-foot person and are producing big beefsteak tomatoes that are approaching ripeness, Klinger said. They aren’t growing in dirt, however. The greenhouse uses hydroponics, which means nutrients and water are piped to each plant and fed directly to the roots, no soil needed.  Each plant is anchored in plastic foam material called perlite and supported by strings.  The predominant color in the structure is deep green. While the students carry out the routine chores, however, they also take readings every day and watch the plants for signs of disease or hampered growth. Occasionally, they will even tear a few leaves off the plants and perform chemical tests on them. “It’s important to maintain the correct chemical balance,” Klinger said, so daily, the students are checking acidity and electrical conductivity. They’ll perform those tests on leaves, too, to determine acidity and water levels. Once, Klinger said, “We thought there may have been a bug invasion, but it turned out they just needed more water.” On a nearly daily basis, Klinger said, she calls Jeff Balduff, THS’s technical support specialist with Crop King, the Ohio company whose system the THS greenhouse is using, for advice and information. The plants receive nutrients and water from three 40-gallon barrels, which are mixed in a fourth.  The mixing barrel the students have named Jeff, in Balduff’s honor. For Katrina Smith, a junior, the greenhouse “is where I’d spend my whole day, if I could.” Smith could leave high school with enough skills to work at a commercial hydroponic greenhouse, Klinger said. As they take measurements, process the data from those measurements and reach conclusions based on that information, Klinger said, the students are learning scientific method along with agricultural skills. Klinger said greenhouse activity becomes fodder for lessons in chemistry and biology in the classroom. As the tomatoes ripen, she said, students will also receive some lessons in business — finding and serving markets and determining profits and losses. While the tomatoes are thriving, Klinger and her students are also starting jalapeno pepper crops on a test basis. Eventually, she said the greenhouse may diversify into cucumbers and eggplant, which use the same nutrient mix as the tomatoes. Klinger said the lessons of the greenhouse are also likely to apply in THS’s culinary arts kitchen, where students are learning the value of locally grown fruits and vegetables.

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