Heat-powered greenhouse

Published in FSD K-12 Spotlight

By Mallory Szczepanski, Digital Production Editor

Students tasting produce grown in the greenhouse.

A greenhouse isn’t a new concept. How one Iowa woman is powering her greenhouse is, however. In mid-2011, Jan Swinton, the local food coordinator at Pathfinders Resource Conservation and Development, applied for a USDA farm-to-school grant to help her provide locally sourced food to Fairfield Community School District students. Her wish was granted, but only $12,000 of the $100,000 grant was allocated to the greenhouse project, leaving Swinton to raise $88,000 on her own for water, electric and heat.

After multiple pitches and agreement declines, she started a greenhouse with the help from the grant and a generous neighbor, Schaus-Vorhies Kleaning, a company that uses heat to clean and strengthen metals. Swinton started growing vegetables by tapping unused heat from the company (it is captured and pumped to the greenhouse through underground tanks and pipes) and Schaus-Vorhies even agreed to pay for the greenhouse’s water and electricity for the next 25 years.

The greenhouse is part of a push by the USDA and districts to incorporate more locally sourced food into schools; 100% of the produce grown in the greenhouse goes to Fairfield Public School cafeterias. Swinton sells directly to the school and has a board of 10 advisors with which she works.

Providing a hands-on environment, Swinton hosts students in the greenhouse to learn more about growing vegetables and to see where the heat comes from. From pea shoots to mustard greens, students are becoming heavily involved with planting veggies and educating themselves about produce.

“Students love hearing about the heat, seeing the tanks underground and learning about how the heat grows vegetables,” Swinton says. Right now, the most popular item grown in the greenhouse is romaine lettuce; about 270 heads are used each week.

“Our science teacher Cory Klehm has been very hands-on with the greenhouse by promoting it in the lunch room and taking kids to the greenhouse for field trips,” says Fred McElwee, director of auxiliary services at Fairfield. “We have been pleasantly surprised by the interest students have for wanting to volunteer in the greenhouse.”

The district is currently in the introductory stage of incorporating the greenhouse veggies in lunch menu options and so far has added the items only to salad bars and salads. Klehm hopes to see a wider variety of produce grown in the greenhouse for upcoming school years.