May 25, 2024

WCA and Ashby ag programs awarded $374,000 grant

WCA students Alexa Blume, Kaylee Gerhke, Brooklyn Storbel, and Sidney Huntley work on plants in the school’s greenhouse.

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Reed Anfinson
Publisher

With a $374,021 grant written by the West Central Initiative, West Central Area Schools (WCA) and Ashby Public Schools will create a new generation of entrepreneurs. At the same time, they will be training students to fill a vital job niche in rural Minnesota.

Through the Growing Grant County program at the schools, students will also be providing nutritional, locally grown food to area residents through the Grant County and Hoffman food shelves.

The grant funds, which go to and are managed by the West Central Initiative, will help the WCA Agriculture Education Department and Ashby Agriculture Education Department train students in meat cutting and the processing and marketing of fruits and vegetables.

The Growing Grant County funding was one of 29 projects in America that received a share of $10 million through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Food Projects Competitive Grants program. 

It is part of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture division, and funding for the projects came from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The projects are meant to “bolster USDA’s food and nutrition security efforts by promoting the self-reliance of communities in providing for the unique food needs of their community members.”

“We are incredibly excited for the students at WCA and Ashby Schools,” WCA agriculture teacher and FFA advisor Eric Sawatzke said. “We are even more excited to support families in and around Grant County through work that will support livestock farmers and provide opportunities to help growers who have excess fruits or vegetables.” Students can help area gardeners donate excess fruit and vegetables to the food shelves.

With the grant, the West Central Initiative plans to buy a mobile processing trailer, Sawatzke said. The fifth-wheel trailer will be fully equipped and inspected for produce and meat processing. WCA will get to use the meat processing trailer for free for at least four years, he said.

“You can use it on-site, at a farm, but it will sit here at the school in Barrett for one semester. There is a site right next to the greenhouse. Then it is going to move over to Ashby for a semester,” Sawatzke said. He said it would then rotate between the schools each semester for the foreseeable future.

“The kids will get to learn meat processing because we are trying to fill that void in the workforce,” he said. “But also, with both schools, we are growing a lot of vegetables and fruits. In the mornings, we will harvest and clean the vegetables and fruits in that space since it is already a food-grade quality room. We might as well double-dip. 

“In the greenhouse and grow shed, in the hydroponics system here at Barrett, we have a bunch of lettuce, cucumbers, and strawberries we will wash and package in the morning. We will then clean the space up, and then there will be a meat processing class in the afternoon. 

“When all is said and done, the goal is that the food, almost all of it, is going to be donated to the food shelves for Grant and Hoffman,” he explained. 

Lettuce and cucumbers from the hydroponic systems are already being donated to the Hoffman and Elbow Lake food shelves. At the high end, WCA is donating up to 36 heads of lettuce a week to the food shelves. Sawatzke expects the greenhouse’s hydroponic system is going to significantly increase production.

“Ashby also has some growing chambers, and they have raised beds for summertime,” he said. Both schools have a summertime program started many years ago where they started an apple orchard, he said.

 “The next step is going to be working with farmers. If a farmer wanted us to, we could process their animal and they could take the meat back…” under the custom exempt label, Sawatzke said.

Custom exempt meat processing is defined in state and federal law as processing not requiring continuous inspection because it is only processed for the animal’s owner. It can’t be sold and can only be consumed by the owner, his immediate family, or non-paying guests. Custom processed meat and poultry must display a “Not For Sale” label.

If a dairy farmer culls a cow from his herd, WCA and Ashby students can learn meat cutting with that cow and return the meat to the farmer, Sawatzke explained. Farmers will also be able to work with the program to provide carcasses through local butchers that will then be used as teaching aides, he said.

He said that the program can take its butchering program to the next level by getting its processing inspected for retail sales. That would allow it to donate or sell the meat.

“We would do both. We would donate what we can, and our long-term goal is to have some FFA-labeled meat packaging. So, if you wanted to buy some hamburger from the FFA program, you are supporting us and keeping us fiscally sound,” he said.

It is a pretty costly classroom setup, Sawatzke said of the meat processing with the fifth-wheel trailer. Income from sales “will allow us to market something to keep it rolling in the future.”

While he is the advisor for the program at WCA, Sawatzke gives credit for the program’s emerging success to the students.

“The kids are 100% in control of this thing,” he said. “I am just the one who makes sure we have all the parts and supplies on hand. They are setting up the irrigation systems. They are doing all the plant cuttings and transplanting. 

“I had an issue with one of the hydroponic systems they were dealing with. They got a hold of the company and got the service technician to talk them through what to do. It is well-run machine around here right now. It is pretty fun.”

A year-round greenhouse

With other grants and the support of 65 donors, WCA has constructed a fully operational 32-foot by 60-foot greenhouse, Sawatzke said. A grand opening for the greenhouse has been set for Tuesday, Feb. 21, at WCA schools in Barrett.

Due to unexpected work, however, additional costs were incurred. The greenhouse drains had to be connected to the school’s septic system. It also had to upgrade its electrical capacity, Sawatzke said.

The goal with the added capacity is to someday power a food processing classroom and grow lights in the greenhouse, he said.

“These added costs mean we are still working on securing about $40,000 to finalize the greenhouse project. This grant does not provide funding to finish that portion of our project.” Sawatzke pointed out.

Added benefits

Funding from the USDA grant will pay for 40% of West Central Initiative Business Development Officer Kate Mudge’s time to facilitate the fast growth WCA and Ashby programs, Sawatzke said.

“It will also fund research conducted by the University of Minnesota on the impacts the project will have on alleviating hunger in our communities, and the ability to reach out for additional grants to help cover some of the additional costs each school will incur,” he said.

More donations, grants needed

A small, heated structure will be built in 2023 as a utility room for water and drainage hook-ups, but the USDA grant does not cover the cost.

“During the power failure on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, it was made clear that these facilities need their own backup electrical generator,” Sawatzke said. “We are currently working on a bid for a propane generator that can support up to 400 amps of electrical service, which will support the greenhouse, meat processing trailer, and cold storage. This cost, expected to be about another $40,000, is not covered by the USDA grant,” he said.

As a part of the grant, Lakes Country Service Cooperative has donated a walk-in cooler for food storage, he said. A walk-in freezer needs to be secured through other funding sources, and a building of some type to hold the two food storage facilities.

“This winter, WCA will be applying for a Minnesota Department of Agriculture grant of up to $70,000 to help cover many of the upgrade costs,” Sawatzke said. “However, we will work to secure other donations and grants as this state grant application is not guaranteed to be approved.”

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