Farm to Tray Program Grows Knowledge and Produce

First period looks a little different at Liberty Tech High School in Jackson, Tennessee. After the bell rings, students in Teresa Crouse’s hydroponics class start to get their hands dirty, quite literally. On any given day Crouses’s classes could be harvesting vegetables for lunch or investigating technical problems with greenhouse equipment.

Senior Aeriel Bell has worked in the Liberty Tech Greenhouse for the past four years, taking all the classes Crouse offers. Bell, who comes from a traditional farming background, says she is fascinated by the different farming methods used in the school greenhouse, like hydroponics and aquaculture.

“It is cleaner. You know what goes in to the product, and what goes out,” said Bell.

A Liberty Tech student works in one of the school’s three greenhouses.

Crouse treats the greenhouse like a self-sustaining business, keeping a close eye on what funds go in and out as well, putting all profits back into operations. Last year she estimates that the greenhouses made $18,000.

Roughly 100 students operate three greenhouses as part of various classes. Students rotate their jobs, allowing a new student to serve as a peer manager every day. Crouse describes it as an authentic way to learn.

“This is the real-world. You have actual customers coming in,” said Crouse.

The program launched in 2003 with the opening of Liberty Tech High School, but their small start-up didn’t have the capacity to sell to anyone but neighborhood cafes and residents. In 2011 their first big customer came close from home. The Jackson-Madison School System wanted to buy produce to serve in Liberty Tech’s cafeteria. Now, the greenhouses produce lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers for five schools in the district.

The Liberty Tech cafeteria uses ingredients daily from the greenhouses.

Bell says her favorite part of the farm to tray program is harvesting vegetables and delivering them to Liberty’s cafeteria.

“Faces just light up,” Bell said.

It is a rewarding experience that Bell says teaches her problem solving skills daily.

“We might walk in to the greenhouse and realize all the water tanks are completely drained. Where did the water go? How much water was in the tank? We have to determine plausible options and eliminate what didn’t happen to fix the problem,” said Bell.

Liberty Tech’s curriculum is also designed to grow students’ real-world experience in other areas of business. Crouse is leading the effort to raise more than $100,000 to build a fourth greenhouse, a project that would allow Liberty to grow produce for the entire Jackson-Madison school system. Business components, like marketing, are built into the school’s agricultural curriculum, so students are digging into the fundraising effort by distributing project information to businesses in the area.

Liberty Tech students work in one of the school’s three greenhouses.

Bell offered business advice to other schools interested in starting their own greenhouse, “Start small and grow your program slowly. Set up a five year plan.”

With the support of their customers and their community, Crouse and her students are taking their own advice, hoping to turn their seed idea for expansion into a functioning reality.