Painted by: Hugo Zamorano
Introducing an agriculture program and an FFA chapter at Omaha Bryan would be considered thinking outside the box because of the school’s urban nature. But as the program has grown and evolved since its inception five years ago, educators chose this year to think inside the box, an AgroBox that is.
Developed by Rubicon Agriculture, the AgroBox is an automated hydroponic growing facility housed in a retrofitted shipping container. Rubicon CEO Chris Moorman, who has a passion for sustainable agriculture, likens it to “marrying established hydroponic methods with state of the art automation and LED lighting.” He notes the facility is able to grow over an acre’s worth of fresh vegetables in the space of six standard parking spots. That compact space helped sell the Omaha Public Schools and Omaha Public Schools Foundation on investing in the system, which is incorporated into the plant science curriculum.
First-year ag education instructor Tyler Schindler was hired with the knowledge that they were going to get the AgroBox. In addition, biology teacher Rhett Wurst works with it in his sophomore biology class. “So really students have about two years to use the Agrobox,” Schindler noted.
Moorman and co-workers from Rubicon installed the AgroBox in August, so the 2016-17 school year was a trial period, said Schindler. “Our class sizes range from 25-30, so about 90 students have been able to use the system. With this first year behind us we are looking at incorporating it into other classes as well.”
During this first year Schindler said they grew lettuce, tomatoes and herbs, and are trying a wide variety of things to find out how they work. While enclosed hydroponic systems can have problems with air movement or pest infestations that explode in confined spaces, Schindler said they have been fortunate with the AgroBox. “So far our only problem has been with the water lines. They get clogged very easily and I have been revamping all the tubing to make it bigger so water flows faster. There is enough air drift that the tomatoes pollinated, so I think we are good!”
He is very enthused about the hands-on aspect of the hydroponic facility. “Because it can be adapted to an urban setting, the students are gaining career experience before college,” he said. There are some cons, such as the small enclosure, which limits class size and student interaction, and also higher maintenance costs, than say with a traditional greenhouse. But Schindler is hopeful they can learn how to make the AgroBox profitable. As for channeling the student’s learning experiences into future careers, the ag instructor noted, “I feel over time students would start getting into horticulture fields. I believe some students might take it even further and see it as a research opportunity. Students can use the Agrobox for research and more scholarly work. We actually have an upcoming student interested in such topics and we are excited to see where that takes us.”
The Bryan agriculture education program is growing in all directions in addition to those crops inside the Agrobox, noted Schindler. “We are going to go into the shrimp/aquaculture business. I also bought rabbit cages to start producing and raising rabbits. We also are looking into making our own rabbit/pet food.” “We are also looking into getting solar panels on our AgroBox to incorporate that into our natural resources curriculum. We are always looking for new and innovative ways to teach agriculture in an urban setting. I have had some other teachers from other states inquire about our academies structure and how we operate. I am always willing to share my experience and information with them.”
Schindler’s love for agriculture studies and FFA can be traced back to high school. “I attended Wheeler Central High School from junior high through my sophomore year. I then moved to Laurel-Concord-Coleridge for my junior-senior year and was heavily involved in FFA while in high school. I attended state convention nearly every year and I attended the Washington Leadership Conference twice.”
Bryan students are beginning to cultivate an attitude of success in their FFA program with the encouragement of Schindler and his predecessors. We just had our first pair of American FFA degrees awarded to Jovany Chavez and Yvonne Moten. We also had another student, Andrea Gonzalez, receive a State FFA degree at state convention in April.”
Plans are to keep growing the program at Bryan High. “We are currently going through a district-wide bond process. Once our bond is finished the school will go through some major renovations, said Schindler. “In addition we received a grant to build two new ag classrooms and a greenhouse. Right now I teach in a portable, which is a classroom that simply has chalkboards, tables and chairs. So our ag classes here can’t simply go out to the shop and do whatever we want. I share this room with two other teachers at Bryan so this expansion for our ag program is highly needed.”
Written By: Barb Bierman Batie, Today's Producer