Lettuce and other crops take off in new project at East Manatee's Haile Middle School

EAST MANATEE -- Green leaf loose lettuce or red? Butterhead or Romaine?

How about all four?

"It makes a wonderful mixed salad," said Karen Ciemniecki, agriscience teacher and FFA advisor at Haile Middle School.

Ciemniecki's students are not only raising fresh produce from seed, but are harvesting it and finding markets for their crops, including bell peppers, eggplants and herbs.

Some of the crops are raised in Earth Boxes, and others in hydroponic towers behind the school at 9501 State Road 64 E.

The school purchased a Vertigrow hydroponic system, where plants are grown without soil and are fed a nutrient solution in water, using a grant received in March from West Coast Resource Conservation and Development Council.

The council also helped get water and electricity connected to the towers, Ciemniecki said.

O'Brien Farms helped get the new venture off to a strong start by giving students a tour of their hydroponic operation and helping students start their first seed crop of lettuce.

They farming success at Haile has sparked interest and enthusiasm among students, who are eager to show off their good-looking crops.

"It's like an orchestra," Ciemniecki said Tuesday as her students fanned out over the Haile farm, checking, cleaning and harvesting.

David Aviles wore knee-high black rubber boots as he inspected the tank to make sure it was full of solution to feed the hydroponic stacks, and that the system was working properly.

The hydroponic crops are grown in coconut fiber and are fed a solution of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous, explained classmate David Barton.

Taylor Butler moved through the rows of hydro

ponic stacks with a pair of clippers, "looking for the best of the best" of lettuce.

"This is a nice full one," he said, collecting a head of lettuce.

The students learn the four C's of getting their crop from farm to table: cleaning, chilling, cooking and checking for cross-contamination, Ciemniecki said.

The student-grown lettuce has been featured at Geraldson Community Farm, the Palmetto High School FFA banquet, and served at teacher appreciation events at Haile and Freedom Elementary School.

Some of the produce has also been sold to parents, staff, students and other community members, Ciemniecki said.

Next school year, the class would like to expand the types of produce it grows, she said.

"Today was a perfect day, not too hot. We don't go outside everyday," Ciemniecki said.

"Sadly," said David Aviles, clearly enjoying the chance to get outside and work with the Haile crops.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021 or tweet @jajones1