Students Cultivate a New Kind of Farm in Cool Valley
In an old industrial park sits a thriving farm on a small parcel of asphalt. Its lush crops are being cultivated by University City High School students.
The farming takes place inside two steel cargo shipping containers. Step into a container and it looks like a greenhouse inside a spaceship. Colored lights blink. Monitors flash. Walls of greenery slide back and forth like hanging files in a filing cabinet. U. City student farmers tuck the spindly roots of kale seedlings into slots in large door-sized panels made of black sponge. The panels hang vertically on the sliding walls that are attached to a water and nutrient system. As the day goes on, the lighting in the space switches to different colors, like a plant discotheque of red, yellow and white lights. The colored lights enhance growth and plant photosynthesis.
UCHS Junior Janiya White calls the set-up a “plant cave,” a confined space where plants multiply vertically without sunlight to maximize space. At first she didn’t know what to make of it, but then she saw the plants grow and grow. She said this has the potential to help her community and students in her schools regarding health and nutrition.
Welcome to the new frontier of urban farming. This past June, eight University City High School students had the chance to be a part of it thanks to the organization Fresh Harvest 365. The summer school students took a bus three times a week to its headquarters in Cool Valley. Once there, they learned about hydroponic farming techniques, the business of agriculture, the benefits of organic, plant-based nutrition, principles of sustainability, and entrepreneurship. Then, they entered the grow containers, donned rubber gloves, and tended to the fields – rather the walls – inside the shipping containers.
“Urban farming is really the key to education, employment and looking to empower people from a workforce point of view,” said Fresh Harvest 365 founder Demetrius Bledsoe. “It’s giving people help in that in can go into agriculture and still be successful in being able to provide healthy and fresh produce into their own households and community.”
Each of the 40-foot containers can yield up to 5 acres of produce – in 320-square-feet of space. That’s about 1,000 heads of lettuce harvested per week in one container. The containers use about 5 gallons of water a day, 180 kilowatts of daily electricity and no soil.
“We need to have more healthy options. For us to be able to grow vegetables at school and have them at lunch – it would be better for all of us." — junior Ryenne Davis
The partnership between Fresh Harvest 365 was nurtured by UCHS Principal and Director of Secondary Education Michael Peoples, Ph.D. Peoples met Bledsoe while he was volunteering with students at a Young Men’s Night Out event at Hazelwood East High School, and from there an idea bloomed to create an agricultural pathway for students at University City High School.
Bledsoe was an inspiration to Peoples. A native of North St. Louis City, Bledsoe went on to Iowa State University and majored in agricultural business. He told his advisor, “People have to eat for the rest of their lives, so let me major in agriculture.”
The crossover from urban life to farm life was a great fit, even though his classmates called him a city slicker. From there, Bledsoe worked at Dow AgroSciences and Pfizer Animal Sciences. A four-year stint in the Philippines where he was tasked with addressing food scarcity issues led him to an interest in bringing large-scale, urban hydroponics farming back to St. Louis. Bledsoe says this is a logical approach to empowering local communities with local businesses growing healthy food in areas where access to fresh produce is limited, and residents may rely on corner markets that typically sell unhealthy and highly processed foods. He says there is a future in innovative agriculture for students who will be grappling to solve food scarcity in the decades to come.
Sophomore Anson Collins said the experience has opened her eyes to new ways to address pressing global issues.
“Vertical farming seems to be the solution to us losing a lot of the arable land that we may no longer use to plant food due to global warming, air pollution, etc.,” she said. “Vertical farming seems to be the answer to that because it’s land efficient.”
Principal Peoples said they hope that a Fresh Harvest 365 growing container will one day be placed directly on the campus of University City High School so students can grow and distribute the produce locally and also serve it in the school cafeteria.
“We need to have more healthy options. For us to be able to grow vegetables at school and have them at lunch – it would be better for all of us,” said junior Ryenne Davis, who noted students’ go-to meal in the cafeteria is pizza. Vegetables are not really a popular choice.
Peoples said the partnership with Fresh Harvest 365 is one part of the school’s developing agricultural pathway of courses that should be in place by the 2024-25 school year. Students who participated in the program this summer received a half-credit. This year, the high school is offering its first course in agri-business.
Student interest in the pathway is exciting,” he said.
“Several who worked with Fresh Harvest 365 this summer who had no exposure to farming or agriculture developed passions that are now driving their secondary school choices and college search,” Peoples said. “Our students have a growing awareness of food deserts and scarcity, and they are developing mindsets and skill sets to work towards finding solutions to these issues.”
Students who participated in the program celebrated their final day at the farm by cooking and eating the fresh produce they grew. The menu included pesto, an Italian dish made with crushed basil leaves, pine nuts, parmesan cheese and olive oil. Some of the students had never tasted basil before.
“I felt like, if it has a strong smell, then it has a strong taste,” Davis said. “And, yes it does.”
Welcome to the farm. Seedlings are embedded in sponge on large panels. The panels are hung vertically on sliding walls that have irrigation systems. The plant walls are bathed in different types of light to enhance growth and photosynthesis.