Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding visited Chester High School on Thursday to see their hydroponic gardens. (KATHLEEN E. CAREY – DAILY TIMES)
CHESTER – Underneath fluorescent lights at Chester High School, rows of echinacea, tomatoes and collard greens were sprouting as Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding bent down to take a closer look.
The crops are part of the 3,000-square-foot Think and Grow Ag Lab where 12 high school students received elective credit and performance stipends of up to $1,000 in the past year for their work in the hydroponic gardens.
On Thursday, the gardens were part of a statewide tour Redding was taking to recognize Urban Agriculture Week.
He also visited the Ruth Bennett Community Farm in Chester and later traveled to sites in Montgomery County.
“Our goal is to look at urban agriculture, at what’s happening but also how to keep improving and strengthening our support for their efforts,” Redding said. “The truth is there is a lot of local community investment being made in food and ag both as a business but also in the charitable side. We want to see that and keep redefining agriculture to make sure that we’re inclusive of all this diversity that’s happening across Pennsylvania.
“It’s not just about the open spaces and farms,” he noted. “It’s about what happens in city centers.”
The secretary explained that agriculture is more than just production. It’s technology, innovation, supply chain and food science and more.
Noting that 10% of Pennsylvanians are food insecure, Redding also spoke about the need for agriculture in line with future population growth estimates.
“By the time the (youngest) students from Chester Upland graduate, we will add another billion, almost 2 billion people to this planet,” he said. “That’s the equivalent of adding two Indias in the next four years.”
Combating food insecurity
Mark Green, who co-founded Think and Grow Farms in Philadelphia with his wife, Dr. Jamie Green, spoke to that issue.
“One of the things we have to do is combat a lot of the food deserts and food insecurity throughout the urban areas,” the native Philadelphian said. “If we teach people how to farm responsibly and feed themselves, it’s just like the old adage, ‘If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for the night. If you teach him how to fish, he’ll eat forever.’ ”
That’s one of the goals they seek to do with the agriculture labs.
“We’re trying to prepare young people with the skills to move forward to have healthy lifestyles,” Green said, adding that there’s multiple goals. “We can teach people how to grow, launch businesses in agriculture, we’ll keep people sustained, we’ll keep families growing and we’ll keep people fed.”
Think and Grow Farms was created by the Greens in 2019 to train people of color in food, energy and water.
Their first facility opened in Jenkintown in 2020, another opened in Philadelphia a year later and the Chester project just completed its first year.
Funding for their program has come from the Exelon Foundation, as well as a $200,000 urban agriculture grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to build infrastructure and teach people of color to farm indoors.
Think and Grow was recently awarded a $750,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to build a food processing facility at Lincoln University.
Dr. Craig Parkinson, Chester Upland superintendent, said last year’s pilot program is being transitioned into a full class offering for next year.
“In Chester Upland School District, we are passionate about providing our students and families with existing careers and economic development opportunities,” he said. “We are eager to pursue sustainability industries, avenues for growth and we are delighted to announce the emergence of our agriculture and technical education program.
“My vision for the youth of Chester is to equip them with the skills and knowledge to thrive in a world that is consistently facing tremendous challenges. We believe that sustainability education holds the key to preparing our young people for the future.”
Flowers and food
Down in Chester High’s indoor agriculture laboratory, Jamie Green dug her fingers into beds filled with gravel and plants, explaining how she can buy two plants and turn it into $100 through propagation.
“Our first grant from the Department of Ag was to use industrial hemp to clean soil,” she said. “We used the same seeds that were used to clean Chernobyl.”
On the tour, she showed greens, tomatoes, echinacea and even kale overflowing from a bucket that students had grown from seed.
“This is nutrition,” Green said pointing to the greens and then, she turned to the flowers. “This is money. The strangest thing is the nutritional food pays the least from a business standpoint. I make more money if I grow flowers, so you have to have a balance of both if you’re going to go into business.”
Students are not only taught to grow the food, they’re taught how to preserve it through dehydrating and freeze drying and there’s a 3-D printer for such projects as creating hempcrete.
Green said the cost to build out such a laboratory as in Chester High School would normally cost $500,000 but they did it for $100,000.
Outside, there are two mobile learning labs in trailers for afterschool programs or community groups who want to have workshops.
The Greens have a partnership with Oneal Latimer of Eastern Hemp Co., who creates proprietary materials with hemp and recycled plastics.
“Hempcrete is fire resistant, mold resistant, pest resistant, grows 10 times faster than timber,” Latimer said.
Latimer said some of the Chester High students had created some of the highest standard hemp mixes of 3-D printed filament.
Another product the students helped create was the ShakeWell hemp protein beverage mix, which Green said just went on Amazon on Wednesday.
They already have customers: one pallet is destined for Sierre Leone and another to South Africa.
Her husband spoke to the sustainable change agriculture can bring.
“Post World War II, there was a lot of manufacturing in the commonwealth,” he said, noting the shipbuilding in Chester and in Philadelphia. “A lot of these processes helped with making life a lot easier for people but it was also somewhat destructive to the planet.
“We have to do something to treat this planet a little better,” Green said. “We’re trying to find the way to get the best value out of existing materials and existing skills to keep people eating healthy foods a lifetime to come.”