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Mauston High School gets grants for plant growth and agricultural improvements

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Elizabeth Babcock

Beth Babcock, an agricultural teacher at Mauston High School who applied for and was approved for two grants this year, showcases a few of the tomato plants growing inside the high school’s greenhouse in November of 2015. The school is now upgrading its greenhouse and will add a new hydroponic system for year-round plant growth.

The agriculture program at Mauston High School is receiving extra funding for its work with hydroponics and plant lighting.

As part of its renovation project, the school is replacing its greenhouse. Because of this, the agriculture department in the school sought funding to make additions to enable year-round vegetable growth and improve food sustainability instruction for area students.

“I think it’s extremely valuable,” said Mauston High School principal Jim Dillin of education on food sustainability and growth. “It’s the sustainability of our foods using greenhouse technologies, but also the ability to respect and appreciate what people in agriculture, especially our local farm families, do in order to produce the healthy food that we need. It’s one of those areas that should be more emphasized because of the constant evolution of it.”

Compeer Financial, a member-owned farm credit cooperative based in Sun Prairie, awarded just under $230,000 in grants to 65 schools in Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin for their work in agriculture with students. Mauston received the $4,000 in funding for its hydroponic system and LED grow lights.

Dillin lauded the efforts of Elizabeth Babcock, an agriculture and horticulture instructor who teaches classes at Olson Middle School along with the high school. Babcock, who submitted the Compeer application, also submitted a grant application for funding from National FFA Organization, which was approved for $3,700.

“She’s going to have this equipment so kids can kind of run their own experiment,” said Dillin of Babcock. “The aquaponics class, the horticulture class are all going to be involved in it. The horticulture class is going to manage the hydroponic system.

Babcock described the hydroponic system as a small ebb-and-flow system in which water will run through two to three times each day. She said that the water will run through the soil and plant roots before running out.

“The goal will be to use it to help grow the vegetables for our Farm to School program and to try new things with it,” said Babcock.

Dillin and Babcock both said that the system will be meant as an educational means to teach students a new, sustainable way to grow food plants. The school already has used an aquaponics system to raise fish for food and the waste from that fish has been used to help grow lettuce, according to Babcock.

She used a different hydroponic system to grow the lettuce, but said that the upcoming one will be used to grow fruiting plants, such as tomatoes and cucumbers.

“A tomato right off the vine tastes way better than a tomato from the grocery store, especially in January,” said Babcock. “It allows us to be able to grow all year.”

She added that the system can be used for a variety of different classes that she teaches, as well as independent studies.

Compeer Financial public relations and communications specialist Nora Nolden provided Mauston’s grant application, which allocates $800 for the hydroponic system that will include growing media and a variety of nutrients. The other $3,200 will be used for four lights at $800 apiece.

The funded items will be used in the school’s agriculture, horticulture, and farming courses. Grow lights will enable year-round plant and vegetable growth, while the hydroponic system will introduce students to a new plant growth technology.

“Showing students new ways to grow things allows them to be prepared for raising enough food to feed our increasing world population,” Babcock wrote in her application. “The ebb and flow hydroponic system and grow lights are easy to use and will allow students to manipulate them for different experiments they choose to conduct through class or FFA (Future Farmers of America).”

Mauston was one of 25 Wisconsin schools to receive grants from Compeer. Many of the schools to receive funding were from the southcentral and southwest regions of Wisconsin.

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