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W.C. Minn. YES! students enjoy ground-floor look at emerging economy based on passive solar technology (with video)

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W.C. Minn. YES! students enjoy ground-floor look at emerging economy based on passive solar technology (with video)
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

What if you could have dropped in on Steve Jobs’ garage while he tinkered and built the first Apple computers?

Thirty-six students in the Youth Energy Summit! program did something of the sort: They toured the passive solar greenhouse of Carol Ford in Milan.

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Also known as the “Garden Goddess,” Ford is a pioneer in what’s known as deep winter production.

She and her late husband, Chuck Waibel, built one of the area’s first, passive solar greenhouses as a commercial venture. They also authored a book offering the details on how others could replicate and build on their ideas.

“It really is possible to take a daunting task and make it real,’’ said Ford as she welcomed students into the sunlit warmth of her greenhouse.

“This is the ground floor,’’ said Jonathan Morales, YES! coordinator to the students during their visit on Feb. 19. “This is where it began.’’

It’s also where it is still happening: Ford is now leading an effort to develop a network of entrepreneurs operating passive solar greenhouses in the region.

They hope to develop a local foods economy by making available healthy, nutritious greens raised in the passive greenhouses located close to the markets they serve.

On average, food is otherwise traveling 1,400 miles to reach our plates. It takes 10 times the amount of energy in fuel to deliver the food to us than the calories of energy contained in it, according to Audrey Arner of Moonstone Farms near Montevideo. She and her husband, Richard Handeen, operate a diversified farm raising grass-fed beef and serving the local foods economy.

“How you spend your food dollars is what emerges in the food system,’’ Arner told the students.

Student interest in passive solar technology and local foods production is evident by the number of YES! teams pursuing projects, noted Morales. The New London Spicer and Lac qui Parle Valley High Schools have built passive solar greenhouses in the last year. YES! teams from the two schools were among those on the tour. They were joined by YES! students from Yellow Medicine East and Redwood Valley, where there is interest in developing their own greenhouses.

Alma Draeger, a student at Clinton Beardsley Graceville High School, has made Ford’s greenhouse the focus of an award-winning science project. She has been looking at issues including soil fertility mixes and whether there are advantages to starting the winter growing season early.

“The best part of it all,” she told the students, is that Ford lets her take home the greens to eat that she harvests as part of her research.

She’s not the only teenage consumer developing a taste for healthy greens. Science instructor Rachel Rigenhagen said her Lac qui Parle Valley students began raising the first crops from their new greenhouse only a few weeks ago. They’re already hard pressed to keep up with demand.

Pea sprouts are being sold at local sporting events, and have proven this popular: She overheard one student reject his mother’s offer to buy him a bag of potato chips. He insisted on the sprouted peas.

Ford told the students the demand for the winter greens is far greater than the supply, easily by a factor of four-to-one.

Shelly and Tim Elkington are into their second season as entrepreneurs supplying this market through a Community Supported Agriculture venture. Each week during the winter, they provide their shareholders in the Montevideo area with a selection of fresh-harvested greens.

“This is a business for us,’’ said Shelly Elkington, by way of emphasizing that they are also dealing with the challenges that come with it.

This winter has not only been colder than normal, but it’s also been cloudy, which reduces the solar heat needed in the greenhouses. Propane prices have skyrocketed too. The Elkingtons’ are using their back-up propane heater to warm the greenhouse on the coldest of nights more often than they’d like.

Just like Steve Jobs in his garage, they are tinkering with the system and looking for ways to improve on it. And like Jobs, there is no hiding the enthusiasm they have for what they do.

Speaking to the wonder of it all, Shelly Elkington told the students: “You put stuff in this dirt and it will grow overnight.’’

Students say YES! to big challenges 

NEW LONDON — Whether it is the challenge of providing affordable and healthy greens raised in the depth of winter, or stopping the avalanche of milk cartoons created in school lunch programs, no challenge seems too big.

This year there are 27 teams at as many schools in southern Minnesota participating in the Youth Energy Summit! Each team takes on its own project to make a difference in their communities, according to Jonathan Morales, YES! coordinator at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.

The YES! teams have been taking on a wide range of projects, according to Morales. The New London-Spicer High School team was inspired last year by a visit to a passive solar greenhouse. Now, their campus is home to both a passive solar greenhouse and a wind turbine that generates electricity.

Morales said students in the Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa district have put together a used-oil recycling center for their communities. In Litchfield, the students are tackling the vexing issue of what to do about all of the milk cartoons tossed in landfills. They are experimenting with bulk dispensers for milk in the school lunch room.

Recycling is a popular theme with many of the teams. The Mankato team has succeeded in diverting 82,140 pounds of organics from the landfill by composting the material instead.

And in Royalton, the students have developed a solar powered boat and a trailer with a solar charging station, complete with 240-watt solar voltaic panels.

First organized in 2007, the YES! program has expanded to offer programs at schools throughout much of southern Minnesota. It is supported by the Southwest Minnesota Foundation in partnership with the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center and participating schools.

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Tom Cherveny
Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.
(320) 214-4335
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