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Billings students grow produce, community partnership in state-of-the-art greenhouse

Aeroponic Towers in St. John's United Urban Horticulture Education Center, Gainan Commons, Billings
Kay Erickson
Aeroponic Towers in St. John's United Urban Horticulture Education Center, Gainan Commons, Billings

It’s an engineering marvel in downtown Billings, an aeroponic farm, nourishing plants and people in an expanding public-private partnership.

The 10-foot-tall white towers sprouting a cornucopia of green produce resemble a plastic forest inside a former greenhouse in what was Gainan’s old downtown store.

“We have 50 towers, each tower holds 52 plants so we can grow over 2-thousand plants in here,” said Cassy Crafton.

Crafton is the greenhouse manager of St John’s United Urban Horticulture Education Center, a collaboration between St John’s United, the Montana nonprofit human services organization, and the Billing School District.

“I’ve got bib lettuce, summer crunch, spring crunch, five- star,” Crafton said, “We do have some iceberg not my favorite to grow.”

Tending the produce is done by middle and high school students from the district programs who attend class here one day a week.

“Everything in the greenhouse from planting seeds to planting towers. Once the plants are ready and have germinated in the nursery they help plant the towers. They help maintain the plants, take care of them as they grow,” Crafton added.

When the plants are ready for harvest, the chefs at St John’s United put in an order and the students do the harvesting of fresh produce destined for the dinner tables of the various facilities housing SJU residents.

“It is so cool when you see the look on students’ faces. They know that they planted seeds and when they get to harvest the food, knowing it’s going to go and feed people at St John’s United there’s just like a look of pride on their faces,” commented Crafton.

Billings School District Counselor Crystal Knutson says coming here gets students out of the classroom, aways from media and screens, learning communications skills and getting in touch with nature.

“Having somebody other than their teacher teaching them probably a lot of the same stuff but in different context, so I’ve seen it to be very powerful,” said Knutson.

Kyler Thorpe is one of the middle school students.

“It opens up a lot of opportunities from like… to being able to have somebody to talk to like a future employer for a job, or it’s just nice to be here and do work and get to know some good people when you’re here,” Thorpe said.

Thorpe even comes after school in his spare time, helping Crafton tend the crops.

Students aren’t the only ones helping at this urban horticulture center. St John’s United residents like Barbara Bailly have been coming since this urban farm got started

“I really enjoy teenagers,” Bailly smiled. “So this is great for me because I have grandkids this age. It’s good to work with them.”

What work the students don’t do, technology does. Watering this forest of towers would take forever without modern engineering.

There are seven thousand-gallon holding tanks for rainwater that comes off the roof top, filtered multiple times. Nutrients are added and the enriched water is distributed.

“At the end of each tower in this particular farm is a black holding tank with all the nutrient water we created,” Crafton explained.. “It is gravity fed to each tower and inside each tower is a buoy. And the buoy, when it lowers because the water level is getting low, that kicks on an automatic drip and it fills the tower automatic from the gravity tank.”

The genesis of this aeroponic farm is credited to a student, Hayden Trost, commented St. John’s United Director of Grants Carissa Welsh.

“She was trying to determine what she wanted to do for her platinum project. She wanted to start a garden. And we said we actually has this greenhouse space and what would it look like if we turned this back to a working greenhouse, “said Welsh.

They approached the district’s Career Outreach Director Bo Bruinsma with Trost’s idea and looked for anyone else utilizing urban farming. Welsh said they found Garden Spot Village.

“They are a retirement community in Pennsylvania who made a aeroponic greenhouse partnered with the school district and have been growing greens for their residents for about five years,” Welsh added.

The St John’s United Gainan Commons continues to grow. Besides the Urban Horticulture Center, the downtown building that was gifted to SJU by the Gainan family several years ago, also houses SJU home health, hospice, family services, a lab, and a refugee resettlement program.

Just last month SJU and the School District entered another public-private partnership, this to have high school students run a coffee shop in the Commons.