Greenhouse Produces Lessons To Grow On

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Trying to keep up with demand, 17-year-old market analyst Jennifer Boyd keeps her finger on the pulse of Rim country produce prices. As co-director of Payson High School's Greenhouse Program, she prices, advertises and sells the produce that her co-director Alicia Meadows and 10 independent-study students grow in the school's greenhouse.

"Keeping up with demand is the hardest," Boyd said as she walked into the hydroponic world of the greenhouse, where green, leafy plants stretch toward a guide wire 6-feet high.

The arched ceiling is built of corrugated plastic sheets that capture the sunlight, creating a warm, tropical climate inside the building, despite the patches of snow that linger outside. Cheryl Waldron, the first customer of the day, steps in and asks Boyd for two pounds of tomatoes.

"They taste wonderful," Waldron said as Boyd measured out her order. "And it helps the kids, too."

"We get at least three orders per day," Boyd said. "And while the lettuce is in good supply, the tomatoes are just not ripening fast enough.

"It will take warmer days and more sun," agriculture instructor Wendell Stevens said.

But the students in the Greenhouse Program are learning more than how to grow and sell tomatoes, Stevens said. They're learning how to feed the world.

"In Jennifer's lifetime, the world's population will double," he said. "The way we produce crops will have to change."

Using hydroponics, a method of cultivating plants in water containing dissolved inorganic nutrients, Payson students are able to produce more food in less space than they could through traditional seasonal farming and they can grow their crops year-round.

"Agriculture of tomorrow will demand more from less space," Stevens said.

The students planted tomato seeds in bags containing soil and perlite and they tucked lettuce seeds into two-inch squares of coconut fiber with a drip system. They also planted cucumbers and bell peppers and they should begin harvesting the vegetables in a week or so.

During the course of the program, students have had to solve frostbite, bug and engineering problems to protect their crops and help them thrive, Boyd said. To keep the vegetables pesticide free, the students have introduced a variety of "good" bugs that eat the "bad plant-eating" bugs. One of the "good" bugs they brought in to take care of their garden's pest problems was a miniature wasp that Boyd said gave her the creeps.

"It is a tiny parasitic wasp not a danger to people," Stevens said.

The students also have had to cope with flooding, fungus and white fly problems, but, said Boyd, "We haven't had a problem we couldn't find a solution for."

The students in the Greenhouse Program sell their pesticide-free produce for about 10 cents below the going market price, and, Boyd said, "(Store-bought tomatoes) are smaller than ours."

The money the students raise helps fund the school's agriculture program and keeps the greenhouse operation going through the summer.

"We hope to be able to employ at least one student through the summer to maintain what we have accomplished, Stevens said.

Boyd, who plans to attend Arizona State University to major in psychology after she graduates in 2002, said the Greenhouse Program addresses her passion for agriculture and she hopes it continues.

"I'll be doing something outside for the rest of my life," she said.

To place an order or have your name placed on the school's fax list for current school produce prices, call the Payson High School agriculture department at 474-5734.

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