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Juntos 4-H plants seeds of inspiration for next generation

Indiana winters often bring to mind cold, snow and overcast skies, but at Seymour High School, students and 4-H members are learning how they can grow food all year long.

Purdue Extension – Jackson County agriculture and natural resources educator, Richard Beckort, teamed up with Mikayla Applegate, agriculture teacher at Seymour High School, and additional funding partner, Farm Credit Mid-America, to establish six aeroponic grow towers in Applegate’s classroom.

With the vertical towers and indoor plant lights, students are learning to grow leafy greens like lettuce, kale and spinach without soil. Nutrient-rich water is poured at the top of the tower and reaches each individual plant as it trickles to the bottom. This production method can be used year-round, producing faster growth and healthy plants while using fewer resources. Lettuce seedlings can be planted into the tower and harvested in four weeks.

“These towers are exposing kids to opportunities they might not have even known about. Even if they don’t end up in a career in horticulture, it’s encouraging that they know there are opportunities to grow their own food, whether they have a half-acre lot with a garden or a small apartment balcony,” said Beckort.

Teenage girl smiles while sticking her tongue out with leafy green on her tongue. Aeroponic towers and other youth are in the background. Bethany, Indiana 4-H Juntos Achievers Club member.

Beckort hopes to add bell peppers to future plantings as it provides an opportunity to teach youth about pollination and the importance of pollinators. Unlike leafy greens that don’t need pollination, bell peppers must be manually pollinated when grown in the towers.

During the fall semester, Seymour High School students use the towers through their horticulture classes. In the spring semester, the towers are used as part of the Indiana 4-H Juntos Achievers 4-H Club activities, the second 100 percent bilingual 4-H club in Indiana, both led by Iveth Vasquez.

Beckort shared that one of the Achievers 4-H members expressed his dream to have grow towers in his future restaurant so he can harvest greens to use in the meals. “That’s a neat outcome for him to visualize because of this experience,” Beckort added.

“It has been wonderful to see this project grow in Jackson County. Youth are really interested in learning how to grow their own food,” said Heather VonDielingen, interim statewide Juntos 4-H coordinator and Purdue Extension – Jackson County director. “4-H gives youth access to programs they might not otherwise have access to. We are very excited to be promoting agriculture within our Juntos 4-H Program.”

The successes with the Achievers 4-H club are contagious as other Juntos 4-H clubs across Indiana look to establish grow towers too. Lake County Juntos 4-H worked with the grow towers in the fall of 2022, thanks to partnerships established within the Purdue Extension - Lake County office and River Forest.

Juntos 4-H in Jackson, Lake and Marion counties were funded by USDA, National Institute for Food and Agriculture, Children, Youth and Families at Risk grant 2019-41520-30061.

Teenage boy smiles while touching leafy greens growing from aeroponic tower. Andres, Indiana 4-H Juntos Achievers Club member.

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