Clean, white growing beds bathed in purple light are a far cry from the sun-drenched dirt on a Cumberland County farm, but students at Commonwealth Charter Academy are discovering it’s the future of the agriculture industry.
In a 6,100-square-foot lab and classroom named AgWorks, students not only learn how to grow food in a controlled environment, but also explore agriculture-related careers.
The creation of the AgWorks facility started with a question encountered by anyone who buys a building: What do you do with an odd space?
CCA, a Pennsylvania cyber charter school, purchased the building from PSECU and was faced with the question of what to do with a large atrium filled with natural light. Since the Harrisburg location is central to the agricultural community, the idea of creating a space to house AgWorks came to life.
The cycle in the lab goes something like this. Tilapia and koi are kept in tanks against the wall. Waste from those tanks are fed through the system to provide a nutrient solution to the plants in beds throughout the facility.
“This at CCA is really cutting-edge agriculture. We try to use as many different systems as we can in here,” said Crystal Huff, integrated systems specialist at AgWorks at CCA.
Aquaponics, which uses the fish waste, is one system. AgWorks also uses hydroponics, in which a plant’s roots are immersed in a nutrient solution, and aeroponics in which the roots are misted with the nutrient solution.
Unlike some students in the AgWorks lab, junior Karsen Hair of Mechanicsburg was already interested in agriculture and was a member of 4-H when he heard about the facility. He thought it would be a great opportunity to gain some experience.
“There’s a lot of possibilities with this. You can take an old warehouse and fill it with beds,” he said. “Even in places where you wouldn’t normally think you could grow things. There’s a lot of opportunities now.”
Visitors shouldn’t be surprised to see tropical plants like coffee, cacao, lemons and bananas growing only yards away from corn and just downstairs from lettuce and other greens.
Greens grown on specialized racks on the mezzanine level of the lab are going out to food banks, Hilton Harrisburg and Harvest Seasonal Grill & Wine Bar. The enterprise offers a model for students to learn about the business aspects of agriculture, such as pricing, marketing, quality control and trends in market demand.
Alisher Aminov, 15, focuses on the business side of agriculture by marketing and selling the microgreens raised in the AgWorks facility. Microgreens are plants that are harvested in their infancy, but have all the flavor of a full-grown plant.
“What makes them really great is that chefs can use them. All of these flavors have a really flavorful garnish or salad without having to use these big ingredients. Here they use small ingredients that have all the flavors,” Aminov said.
Growing microgreens locally gives new options to chefs who usually have to rely on shipments coming in from Florida or California at this time of year. Aminov recently talked to a chef who said that about half of such shipments are unusable by the time they arrive.
“The fact that we can have this here is really special in that sense,” he said.
That’s one of the advantages to controlled environment agriculture.
“We can actually get food closer to the people,” Huff said.
Doing so can have a ripple effect in a community. Abandoned warehouses can be turned into agricultural production facilities, bringing jobs as well as food to the community while cutting down on transportation costs, she said.
Even with its success in growing produce, the goal of AgWorks is to become a research facility and demonstration site engaging businesses and academia to interact with students and to discover the agriculture careers of the future.
“Careers are changing every day. The elementary students that are in here now? What they’re going to have as career opportunities will be totally different,” Huff said.
Students don’t have to travel to Harrisburg to participate in experiments at the lab. For example, 45 students in Dixon City are conducting an experiment to see if plants grow better in tilapia or koi solution. They can watch a camera trained on their plants to see how their crops are growing and use data from sensors built into growing beds to gather data.
“We can take that experience and push it out to more students than the ones that are just actually physically here, which is pretty powerful,” Huff said.
Huff would like to build relationships with places like Michigan State University which, like AgWorks, has a lighting lab. That will allow the students at CCA to participate in college-level experiments and experiences before they walk out the door, she said.
CCA also hopes to work with Messiah College in the AgWorks tissue culture lab, and with Penn State Harrisburg in the genetics lab.
“It’s not meant to be an isolated little world. It’s meant to be a place where those partnerships can be built out,” she said.
But, as part of a school, it is also a place where students can explore careers, whether in the actual growing process or in a related field.
Hair is still working on what he wants to do in the future, but is considering a career in agriculture, possibly even in something similar to aquaponics.
“Professionally working in the field of aquaponics is what I want to do for a career,” said Nathaniel Saxe, an 11th-grade CCA student. “This facility is just incredible. What CCA is offering me in high school is something that most colleges aren’t capable of. I’m able to gain more knowledge now and better prepare myself for a career.”