GREEN BAY, Wis. — Tucked in the back of Green Bay Southwest High School, some students may not even notice the agriscience classrooms. From the outside, they look like any other room. But behind a few doors lies a gateway to a robust world of plants and animals.
“The only disappointing thing about this is that not many students here really know what’s going on back here, but I feel like once you’re involved, you’re in it for the long run,” said Genevieve Winkler, Green Bay Southwest junior.
An eight-minute drive from the school can get you to Lambeau Field or Austin Straubel International Airport. The school is surrounded by suburban neighborhoods and seems an unlikely location for a flourishing agriscience program.
Winkler joined the program because she enjoyed growing plants at home. Now, she’s all in and even joined the school’s Future Farmer’s of America horticulture team.
“I think something that’s really cool about this is that we get to grow the actual food for our students. The lettuce that our students are getting served on their tacos every day is coming from our school,” said Winkler.
Fellow junior, Gail Wery, talked Winkler into checking out the program. Wery said she also enjoys providing fresh lettuce for the school’s lunch program.
“A lot of my friends get the school lunch here, and sometimes I see them eat it. They give us little comments and feedback. They all enjoy it, which is really good,” said Wery.
Southwest’s lunch program uses about 30 pounds of lettuce per week. The students fill that order and now, have doubled it with their new aeroponics growing system.
“You’re not going to get anything more fresh than coming from here. This will be in the cafeteria tomorrow afternoon,” said Tom Sebranek, Green Bay Southwest Agriscience teacher.
The growing system was originally designed to grow hemp. However, Sebranek contacted the aeroponics manufacturer about using it for lettuce and led the charge to bring the system to Southwest.
There’s no soil. A computer balances the nutrients and sprays the roots with water on a scheduled rotation. The water gets reused, making it conservation friendly.
“We’re the only high school that has this aeroponics. It’s fun that we get to learn everything. We’re the first ones that actually get to do it,” said Winkler.
The program also includes a traditional hydroponic setup, as well as Flex Farm units from Wisconsin’s own Fork Farms.
Sebranek grew up on a farm. By nature of his job, he’s a hands-on teacher but lets students make mistakes.
“I don’t want to encourage failure, but when they fail, they learn. Then I let them correct it. I’d rather have them figure it out and say, ‘why is this?’ I always want to know the why. Once they figure out the why, then the lightbulb goes on,” said Sebranek.
He said the students run the show.
“We come in here every day. We check PH levels. We check nutrient levels, water levels, just make sure all the plants are treated how they need to be treated,” said Winkler.
Students get exposed to more than plants. Four chickens provide educational opportunities and revenue from Southwest staff who line up to purchase their eggs.
“We may show all four of them at the fair. We’re going to have students show for the first time at Southwest. We’ve never shown any livestock,” said Sebranek.
The school also has fish. Twelve hundred perch in various stages occupy large tanks. Also, tilapia, which gives students a hands-on experience.
“All of this will be used for practice filleting fish, and we harvest them all,” said Sebranek.
The school also has a large greenhouse for flowers, herbs, and some catfish, which provide fertilizer via aquaculture for even more lettuce.
All the eggs, fish and plants grown in the school’s greenhouse will get sold to help support the program. Extra lettuce goes to other schools in the district, and during the summer, Sebranek said they’ll provide it to Paul’s Pantry in Green Bay.
Sebranek, who often calls himself a farm kid, helped grow a diverse agriculture program in an unlikely spot at Southwest.