Inside Honesdale High School’s greenhouse

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 3/11/20

HONESDALE, PA — It’s a chilly winter day, but beneath the transparent roof of Honesdale High School’s (HHS) sun-filled, humid greenhouse, it feels a lot like summer. At about 10:15 …

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Inside Honesdale High School’s greenhouse

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HONESDALE, PA — It’s a chilly winter day, but beneath the transparent roof of Honesdale High School’s (HHS) sun-filled, humid greenhouse, it feels a lot like summer. At about 10:15 a.m. last Thursday, students in Kayla Hack’s Plant and Horticulture class filed in through the clear doors and industriously began tending to a tank full of koi fish, rows of leafy green produce and budding flowers; a couple of students were seated working at laptops.

“They don’t stop moving when they’re in here,” Hack said.

The aquaponics greenhouse, completed this January, is the newest and most visual addition to HHS’s growing agricultural program. The ag-based curriculum was put into place just a few years ago, Wayne Highlands superintendent Greg Frigoletto said, as a result of the district’s research on what career program would most benefit the community and provide job opportunities for students. Agriculture, he said, is broad enough to appeal to a diverse sample of the student population.

“The exposure [students] are getting through this is launching them onto different pathways,” he said. “Anything from horticulture, to forestry, to food processing, to veterinary, to [agribusiness]—it’s so diverse that it can appeal to anybody who has any interest.”

Hack, who moved to this area from Wisconsin three years ago to become HHS’s agriculture teacher and Future Farmers of America (FFA) adviser, said she was careful to design the program to coincide neatly alongside the farming industry of Wayne County.

“The community has made this ag program grow fast,” Hack said. “When I first moved here, it was a big deal to me to really reach out to our community partners, see who the farmers were, see who the foresters were, see who was in ag-business… our community members are our experts.”

Aside from bringing plants to harvest, the horticulture class’s curriculum also involves cultivating connections with the local farmers and business owners. Students on the marketing team are tasked with reaching out to area kitchens about possibly providing them with produce and arranging tours with restaurant owners. Ben Swartz, a junior this year, said that, so far, they have made connections with businesses like Native, Wallenpaupack Brewing Co., Hop Barons Kitchen and the Alpine Wurst & Meat House.

On Tuesday, March 31, HHS is inviting the public to an open house from 1 to 3 p.m. which includes a tour of the greenhouse.

Open house attendees unfamiliar with the term “aquaponics” may be surprised to find a fish tank full of koi inside the greenhouse. The fish’s waste, when mixed with bacteria and some added nutrients, creates a “usable form of nitrogen” fertilizer for the plants. Students on the fish and water team are responsible for keeping the koi properly fed and healthy. On Thursday morning, some of the fish were separated into other tanks as the students investigated why the quarantined fish seemed to have some kind of sickness.

“It’s a lot of problem solving,” Hack said, noting that whether it’s the amount of nutrients in the soil, water pressure levels, health of the fish, growing behavior of the plants, or the partnerships with outside businesses, there are many variables involved in running the greenhouse properly.

Hack and Frigoletto both said that the immersive learning environment is designed to help students secure jobs after graduation. The dean of Delaware Valley University’s agricultural school recently visited and said that Honesdale’s program was in-depth enough to qualify students for a job in DVU’s campus greenhouse.
The program’s overall design is also shaped by an “occupational advisory council,” a group of ag-industry leaders, Frigoletto said. The council meets with administrators, teachers and students to provide guidance about where the program should go. He called them “instrumental” in constructing the curriculum so far.

Being in the ag-program doesn’t necessarily mean a student is involved in farming outside of school—Hack said that in the horticulture class, it was about an even split.

Kassie Diehl, a senior this year who plans to study veterinary science in college, decided to get into this class after she had already taken all of the available animal science classes offered by Hack.

“I’ve enjoyed every second of it,” Diehl said.

The project was funded by grants through several organizations: Tractor Supply Company & National FFA Grants for Growing, Wayne County Community Foundation, Marshall Machinery, Department of Community and Economic Development Monroe County LSA grant, the John and Helen Villaume Foundation and the USDA Rural Development Grant.

Hack also credited the Penn State Extension, the local 4H office and the Wayne County Commissioners for all supporting the program as well.

“I can’t echo it enough,” Hack said. “Wayne County just cares about stuff like this.”

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