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Brainerd FFA to grow hydroponic vegetables and fish for food shelf

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 10/03/2012 10:13 AM

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BRAINERD, Minn. — While most people are preparing for crop harvest, the Brainerd FFA is getting ready to plant.The chapter plans to use aquaculture and hydroponic production to raise 250 pounds of fish and 350 pounds of fresh produce for the area's food shelf and soup kitchen.

Brainerd FFA is one of 140 chapters in 41 states who received up to $2,500 from the Food For All grant to develop and implement a sustainable hunger program. The FFAers will grow food for those in need and conduct two public workshops on food production and nutrition. Brainerd FFA conducted one workshop last spring with Head Start parents. Members showed them how to start small container gardens and provided seeds and plants to start home garden projects.

Chapter members learned about the grant at the National FFA Convention last fall and considered applying, said Brainerd FFA advisor Denise Reeser. But the deadline loomed as students were in the midst of fruit sales in December.

Chapter members knew it would benefit the community, which has had one of the highest unemployment rates outside the Twin Cities and a school district with a high rate of free and reduced lunch recipients.

It would also be a great community service project for the chapter, which was interested in giving back to the community, Reeser added.

The chapter learned in January that it would receive a grant.

"When the grant came, we thought it was awesome," Reeser said. "But we've also made some mistakes last year. We've learned from them and are ready to tackle the food production."

First, they planted a community garden, but it was wiped out due to Mississippi River flooding, Reeser said. By the time the chapter received word that no toxins were left behind by the floodwaters on the garden soil, it was too late to replant.

Instead, the chapter is focusing on fall indoor production thanks to aquaculture and hydroponics. The chapter did some small scale production testing the systems last year.

For the tilapia, the chapter started with 200 fry. They ended up filleting 48. In two weeks, they'll receive 200 fry and 50 two- to three-inch fingerlings, she said.

Brainerd FFA president Alex Balster is heading the aquaculture project. He likes the hands-on project and the attention to details.

The high school senior will be writing a manual for other students based on what he's learned through the project. Some students will also act as interns learning more about the aquaculture system.

His face lights up as he talks about aquaculture.

"Coming from a student, you get sick of seeing things on a screen," Balster said. "But when you see a student lead a project that was created by a student, it is exciting. This is a really fun thing."

Hydroponic production will take place in the school's greenhouse where, thanks to the school's boiler, the building maintains a 70- to 72-degree temperature throughout winter.

Reeser is familiar with hydroponics and, through the school's ag classes, raised some vegetables hydroponically last year in specially designed pails.

Due to the late production start, it's questionable whether the chapter will grow the pounds of produce and fish it had intended by November when the grant year ends, Reeser said. But that's not hindering the students' commitment to the food shelf and soup kitchen. They want to raise the food to complete the grant project and are eager to continue it.

"We want to make this purposeful," Reeser said. "I feel strongly that most of the kids today need to learn to be more connected with the community and to volunteer. That's hard to do with parents working and with all the school activities."

The chapter's Food For All program brings home the importance of helping others and how food production can also help those in need.

Other FFA chapters that received the Food For All grant include Mora, Morris Area and Sauk Rapids-Rice.

The Food For All Grants are sponsored by Farmers Feeding the World and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation as a special project of the National FFA Foundation.