Turkey Valley FFA’s high-tech growing strategies yield promising results

Turkey Valley FFA member Nicholas Bernhard, 14, stands at the rear of the FFA chapter’s greenhouse to show the size and volume of the facility. (Driftless Multimedia photo by Zach Jensen)

By Zach Jensen,

Turkey Valley FFA member Nicholas Bernhard, 14, stands at the rear of the FFA chapter’s greenhouse to show the size and volume of the facility. (Driftless Multimedia photo by Zach Jensen)

The Turkey Valley FFA Chapter is going high tech in its greenhouse. Last year, the 48-student chapter raised $3,000 to buy a “Farmbot” open-source CNC farming robot; a tool many FFA chapters only dream about.

“I just started putting it together at the end of last year and got it pretty much built, and the wood part I built in the shop at the beginning of this year,” said Turkey Valley senior Tanner Tlusty. “Since then, I’ve been fixing some issues with it.”

Tlusty, 17, said the Farmbot can receive instructions/programming from a smartphone application anywhere in the world. For example, just a few weeks ago, he was on vacation in Florida and could control the robot from there.

“Because it’s web-based, you can run it from anywhere in the world, and that adds a lot of flexibility, because you don’t have to be here to get stuff done,” the student explained. “Using the app, I program where I want plants, and I schedule sequences to take place at different times and different days, and I don’t need to be here. It will pick up seed, and it will plant it where I led it to, and it will water that plant every day. There’s also a weeder part of it that I haven’t figured out yet.”

Before it plants, the Farmbot has some settings, like soil height, that needs to be set manually, but once it’s set, Tlusty just presses a button, and the Farmbot does everything automatically. Tlusty said the chapter hasn’t used it to plant anything yet, but he has big plans for the robot’s future.

“In my coding, I have it sectioned off into four quadrants,” he said. “In one quadrant, I’m planning on having six tomato plants. Another quadrant will be lettuce, another will be chives or beans, and the last one will be something else.”

While Tlusty will be studying engineering after he graduates from Turkey Valley, Turkey Valley Chapter-mate Nicholas Bernhard, 14, said he’s not sure yet what field he’ll go into after high school.

“Being involved in FFA has really opened up a lot of career opportunities,” Bernhard, a freshman, said. “That’s made the decision a little tougher, I think, because there are so many more opportunities I didn’t know even existed before I was in FFA.”

“I really enjoy it,” Bernhard continued, “because in FFA, I’m doing something that doesn’t just help me; I can also make a difference in my community. And, I have fun with all my chapter-mates.”

Bernhard’s primary interest in the FFA chapter’s greenhouse is the hydroponic growing system. Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil by using a nutrient-rich water solution instead. The roots of hydroponic plants grow into the liquid solution instead of into dirt. Hydroponic systems can be used indoors or outdoors and can produce faster growth and higher yields than traditional soil-based growing systems.

From five hydroponic towers, the chapter has grown butterhead lettuce, tomatoes, romaine lettuce and peas. The chapter started out with five towers and just recently purchased five more to expand its production.

“Water gets pumped into our water filtration system, and the two tanks are full of concentrated fertilizer,” Bernard said. “The fertilizer is mixed in with the water and put into another tank. From that tank, it goes into these towers, which are all on a timer, so they all get watered and fertilized automatically at the same time.”

The FFA members agreed their entire chapter is excited to show off what their self-sustaining greenhouse can do during its annual Flower Fest, which is being held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, May 10, 8 a.m. to noon, Saturday, May 11 and 8 a.m. to noon, Saturday, May 18. Stop into the greenhouse in front of the school at 3219 Highway 24 in Jackson Junction to check out over 1,000 flowers and a small selection of vegetables, all grown by students. All funds raised during the event go into the chapter’s Greenhouse Account to help its students continue to grow quality plants and learn about emerging grower technologies and horticultural strategies. 

“This is a visual representation of all we’ve done as a chapter,” said Bernhard. “It’s really gratifying to see the result of all this work.” 

“We are so fortunate that we have a school board and administration that is so onboard and supportive of what we do, and I’ve got amazing kids,” added Turkey Valley Vocational Agriculture and FFA instructor Steve Pfaffle. “All of this is a product of the kids’ effort. They’ve done all of this.

“This whole thing is self-supported,” Pfaffle continued. “The school helped provide this facility, and the kids did a tremendous amount of fundraising. Thanks to the kids and everyone who contributed, we have this beautiful greenhouse, and I want to show it off. I want everyone to see that their money is being utilized to the fullest. This is absolutely phenomenal. I’m very lucky.”


More photos in the April 30 Driftless Journal.

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