Farm in a Box

Urban agriculture students with their crop

High school students grow food, business knowledge

By Terry Troy

Talk about an educational “twofer.”

High school students from Cleveland suburbs Euclid, Wickliffe and Mentor are growing crops in a unique environment that teaches them about the future of high-tech farming, while offering insight into modern agriculture business.

The technology is already enjoying commercial success on a national level by a company headquartered in Cincinnati called 80 Acres Farms, which recently expanded its partnership with grocery giant Kroger to deliver fresh produce. You may have read about that company in our last issue.

Starting with just a single Kroger store in Cincinnati in 2019, 80 Acres Farms grew its reach into more than 300 Kroger stores across Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky by 2021. This past August, 80 Acres announced its plans to serve about 1,000 Kroger stores across the Midwest and Southeast.

To give you an idea of the efficacy of this new farming method, 80 Acres’ first farm was only a quarter of an acre. Yet it could produce the same amount of food as an 80-acre farm—hence its moniker.

Some people have called the new technology being taught at Euclid City Schools, “farm in a box.” Using hydroponic technology and computer-controlled lights, the program teaches students how to grow crops in a container that saves space by allowing the vertical growing of produce.

According to Chris Papouras, superintendent of the Euclid City School District, the program was developed through educational partnerships as well as the insight of the Euclid City School District.

“We did the purchasing of a lot of the equipment from a company called Freight Farms,” he says. “Our instructor also did some professional development with them.”

Chris Papouras, superintendent of the Euclid City School District

Founded in 2012, Freight Farms debuted the first vertical hydroponic farm built inside an intermodal shipping container with the mission of democratizing and decentralizing the local production of fresh, healthy food. Since its inception, Freight Farms has refined its product offering to something it calls the Greenery S container farm, which is what is being used in the Euclid program.

The Euclid City Schools and board approved the purchase and received help from the Euclid Schools Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the schools. The Lake Shore Compact, which is a part of the district’s Career Tech programs, contributed dollars as well.

Karen Brown, assistant superintendent of the Euclid City School District

“The money funneled through the Lake Shore Compact comes in the form of federal dollars and is meant to support our Career Tech programming,” explains Karen Brown, assistant superintendent of the Euclid City School District, who also coordinates the district’s Career-Tech programs. “We were able to use some of that funding since our program is open to students from Wickliffe and Mentor as well.”

80 Acres uses 100% renewable energy to create a fully sustainable environment to grow crops free of pesticides, while also eliminating what it calls “food miles” or the distance it takes to get food from the farm to the plate. Eliminating those food miles was a major consideration when choosing the program for high school students, says Papouras.

“When we started doing our research, we didn’t realize how complex it was getting something from the farm to the plate,” he says. “I didn’t realize that sometimes it takes 1,500 miles for that happen. The question then became, ‘How do we make sure that people are able to get food? How do we offer a learning program that can help our students learn a new technology that will actually help shape the future of the world?’

“This fit perfectly in with the mission of our urban agriculture program. The bigger question being, ‘How do we provide food, especially fresh produce, for communities and neighborhoods where fresh produce is not as easily accessible?’”

The container allows students to grow crops on a sustainable, industrial scale. Students sell some of the crops to local restaurants to offset the costs of the program while offering leftovers to local foodbank programs. However, the lessons are not confined to using this new technology to simply produce food.

“It’s also adding to their experience by offering a deeper understanding of the business side of urban agriculture,” says Brown. “While our students have sold crops, they have been able to grow on our grounds, the volume with which they are able to produce crops from the Freight Farms container expands their business education. Our instructor has made business connections, and not just with charitable organizations, but with restaurants. So, our students are beginning to better understand supply and demand as well as sales. This is getting them hands-on experience on the business side of agriculture.”

Students at Euclid City Schools are learning how to urban farm as part of this program.

According to Brown, students in the urban agriculture program number about 35, while another 45 students participate in the Euclid Schools’ culinary program.

“Another interesting aspect would be to have students who are farming supply produce to students who were doing the cooking and serving,” says Papouras.

“It’s all a part of a strong push to make our students realize that there are different pathways in school—not just those that lead to graduation, but many that lead to success in life. We are trying to be much more in tune with the matching education with careers and jobs of the future.”

But the technology could also be implemented to eliminate an urban cultural phenomenon called “food deserts.” The most immediate impact being the feeding of the multitudes of hungry who are food deprived or food challenged.

While both Brown and Papouras would not comment on what the future might hold for students, it might not be too long before a graduate of the program embarks on an entrepreneurial endeavor that rivals that of 80 Acres Farms, which has enjoyed so much success in the Queen City area.