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In remote Thorne Bay, students are growing in more ways than one

Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska has no problem growing trees, but in terms of naturally-grown edibles, it might as well be a barren, rocky wasteland. But the Southeast Island School District is looking to change that.

By building a series of greenhouses that connect to the schools' wood-fired hydronic boilers, the local schools are helping to improve food security without adding additional fuel costs on their remote island at the tip of the Alaska Panhandle.

The first greenhouse in the community of Thorne Bay is already proving its worth. Since construction last year, it's been producing over 1,200 heads of lettuce at a time in its hydroponic grow system.

That's just the beginning of what the greenhouse can do, according to the school district's agricultural projects manager and teacher Brian Adams. The little greenhouse in Thorne Bay is only being half-utilized by growing the lettuce, which includes multiple varieties of red, green, bibb and romaine, with plans to expand to herbs like basil.

But Thorne Bay isn't the only school with projects in the works. In Coffman Cove, a small community of 200 people north of Thorne Bay, the school is testing out an orchard, complete with apples, cherries, plums and even blueberry bushes. That same school has also started raising chickens, using the droppings for fertilizer in a full-circle farm approach.

School district Superintendent Lauren Burch hopes to one day have each school producing a different crop. He hopes that as other greenhouses come online, each one will have a different niche -- some for colder-weather crops and greens, others for warm-weather-loving tomatoes and squash.

Burch oversees nine schools in the Southeast Island School District and a school in the nearby Hydaburg City School District. Most of the students reside on Prince of Wales Island, the 135-mile-long, 45-mile-wide island that's the fourth-largest in the U.S. Despite the size, it's sparsely populated, with only about 6,000 people on the entire island. In the nine SISD schools, there are a total of 198 students. Thorne Bay is the largest with 75.

The island is not normally a great place for growing food, with its temperate maritime climate, mossy, acidic soil and Sitka black-tail deer gobbling up whatever does grow. Some people have raised beds they do some gardening in, but Burch said those are mostly backyard operations. There are no commercial growing operations on the island.

But what they can grow are trees, Burch said, making the wood-fired burners a natural fit for heating the schools. The first were installed in Thorne Bay and Coffman Cove two years ago and use wood, which at $200 a cord is much cheaper than using expensive fuel oil to heat the buildings.

For Burch, the reasons for starting the gardens are multi-tiered. For one, he was frustrated over dining options in the schools. Since they're so small, no schools in the district have commercial kitchens, limiting what can be served. Access to produce in the schools is "abysmal," he said.

"It's a lot of warming up egg rolls," he said. "... It has to be something coming out of a box."

Plus, Burch believes that students learn best with hands-on, real-life experience.

So as schools began switching to the more affordable wood-fired boilers, Burch began considering greenhouses.

The greenhouses siphon off heat from the boilers during colder times of year, adding no additional expense according to Adams, who designed the systems.

As more schools switch to wood boilers, Burch hopes to attach a greenhouse to each. So far there are three schools with boilers and a fourth that uses heat produced by a nearby diesel generator. Thorne Bay already has its greenhouse, while two of the schools -- Coffman Cove and Kasaan --- have greenhouses purchased and are in the process of being constructed.

But beyond the benefits of having fresh produce are the learning applications for the students. Not only are they studying horticulture, but there are math and business components as well. The students literally took ownership over the project, Adams said, forming their own business. The students named it "The Seed of Knowledge."

Pat Holloway, professor of horticulture and director of the Georgeson Botanical Garden at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, worked with teachers and staff to help develop the curriculum. She said the students are some of the most engaged she's ever worked with. A visit from the Thorne Bay students to the Fairbanks garden left Holloway fielding tons of questions.

"I think I went through my Ph.D exam again," Holloway said. "It's so amazing what they wanted to know about, from hydroponics to beekeeping. It was quite exciting to work with them."

She was so impressed it gave her the inspiration she needed to formalize a series of entry-level college courses in natural resource management for high schoolers looking to earn college credit.

Burch has other big ideas for the project that relate to food, including taking over the only restaurant in Thorne Bay and having the students operate it, hopefully to help them raise funds for other projects.

But for Thorne Bay, a community of only 500, the produce is a wanted commodity.

"They've done an excellent job," said Angel Wiren, produce manager at Thorne Bay Market, the only grocery store in town. "Believe it or not, the people in the community will buy it over anything else."

In nearby Craig, Debbie Hagen helps run The Bread Box, a small bakery, cafe and organic produce market. Last week, all but one of the 24 bags of spring mix had been sold after receiving them the day before. She said it's been great to watch the kids bring the produce over, knowing they're not only making money, but learning about running a business in the process.

Plus, the benefits are delicious.

"The community is really behind them," Hagen said. "They're all really excited to have it."

Reach Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna@