Microgreen growing leads to dream career
Lessons in agriscience and farming grew into a hydroponic and microgreen business for a busy Lowell High School senior with the help of his teacher and FFA advisor
Host Joy Walczak from Kent ISD is joined by Lowell High School Senior David Johnston and Agriscience Biology Teacher and FFA Advisor Kevin Nugent on this episode of the Your Dream is Our Dream podcast:
Joy Walczak: Welcome to the Your Dream is Our Dream Podcast, where we celebrate student success, one dream at a time. This program is made possible by Kent ISD in partnership with WGVU. I’m Joy Walczak and I have with me today David Johnston, a senior at Lowell High School, and his teacher and FFA Advisor, Kevin Nugent. Thanks so much for joining me here in the studio today.
Kevin Nugent: You’re welcome, thanks for having us
David Johnston: Pleasure to be here.
JW: Well, we're happy to have you here. David, I thought we would get started with you. Why don’t you begin by telling us about the class that you are taking with Mr. Nugent, maybe a little bit about the big project he has helped you start?
DJ: Well, yes, so I have taken classes with Mr. Nugent throughout freshman, sophomore and junior year and now into my senior year this year. I haven't had any yet, but hope I will at the end of the year, which will be my final class in high school that I’ll take out in Lowell. But my freshman year, I started in his Agribiology class and that was an all-year class. And that's where I got started and then hooked on agriculture. And then from there, I decided to branch out and take the plant side.
JW: Well, that sounds really interesting. And I understand you're also a student at the Kent Career Tech Center. Is that right?
DJ: Yes, so the Tech Center is juniors and seniors. And so my junior year, I I decided to go there. I had to apply my sophomore year but managed to get in my junior year. So then from there, I went to the Sustainable Agriculture program and even further expanded my horizons, past just the plant side that I wanted to learn about, into animals, hard-scape, landscape, floral design and more.
JW: You certainly have taken it further than a lot of students do. And Mr. Nugent, as a teacher, you must hear a lot of ideas from your students and It's probably safe to say they won’t all turn into sustainable projects. What sets David's idea part? What is David's idea and how did you help guide him along the way?
KN: Through our agriculture classes, we encourage the students to have projects of their own. They’re called supervised ag experiences where they develop some type of a hands-on project that they can do outside of school. And like you said, we get all kinds of ideas. Most of them, the kids want to raise animals. David was a little different because it did revolve on the plant side. And so he's taken it and he's developed his own hydroponics business. And what kind of set it apart is that he developed it on his own really before I even knew about it. I found out last fall that he had been doing this little hydroponic system just in his bedroom. And so after talking to him and his parents a little bit about what he was doing, we offered the opportunity for him to use a bigger system that we had that the school and really kind of grow his business and really develop some of those skills that he’d been working on in his bedroom.
JW: That's terrific. So tell me a little bit more about this hydroponics business that you have started. What are you growing and what do you do with what you grow?
DJ: So I grow right now a bunch and a bunch of a bunch of lettuce. I'm very familiar with lettuce. I know lettuce works. I know everything about the mechanics of lettuce and I know what to do when one of my lettuces is not looking the greatest. So I'm very familiar with that set and I look to right now, I know about how to grow other things such as carrot hydroponics which is a brand new thing to me, and I also do microgreens and right now microgreens are a big thing on the market, but more geared towards larger based, you know, top tiered restaurants, that garnish things. And they're not quite as known about such as in smaller communities and smaller towns, but they are nutrient packed little sprouts that you can put on anything, anywhere.
JW: That's absolutely right. And you’re in the community of Lowell, so you're bringing this to a more rural community.
DJ: Yeah, so Lowell is very small, I wouldn't say completely small, but smaller than your average kind of town, but more spread out is what I'd say. So everybody kind of knows the general location where people are. I have a ton of friends who go to the high school. It's just you live in that subdivision. I know exactly where that is.
JW: In this business that you are growing to do a hydroponic business, you're doing it in conjunction with your teacher. And it's also meeting some requirements for a big achievement you'll have coming up in March. Can either of you tell me about that?
KN: Yes. David is actually up for what's called the state FFA degree. And so through the FFA like I said, we encourage students to develop these businesses, develop projects that they do on their own, and the state degree rewards students that have either invested a certain amount of time or have earned a certain amount of money as a result from these projects that they've developed on their own. And so David is just one of two students from Lowell High School that will be receiving this award in March. And it's really, it's the highest achievement that a student can earn at the state level. And so it's quite an accomplishment that, you know, David started off and he just started this hydroponics business this year, but he's done other things in the plant side. He's worked at greenhouses, he's done some things before that have helped kind of build to this level, and really it's built his knowledge and his skill set to be able to be successful in this hydroponics business that he started.
JW: It sounds like an incredible dream. And I have to say, it's one that keeps growing. I’m just going to say that. So, David, when you think about your teacher’s influence on your business, how has what he has taught you really helped you to grow and achieve this dream?
DJ: I would say the most influence is from Mr. Nugent because I came into the high school. Then I wanted to be like a gunsmith or a therapist. I had no interest or influence from agriculture at all, working with metal versus plants. So I decided to take the ag biology all-year course, because I thought it got me out to doing the other biology, which was rumored to be a lot harder. And so I took his class. And then I discovered that, hey, I actually enjoy doing this. So I want to keep going and go as far as I can with it.
JW: So what is your ultimate dream?
DJ: My ultimate dream is to be able to keep expanding my horizons in the plant world as far as I can. I'd like to try and incorporate more biodiverse farms and more growing up than out in our expanding world and the problem we face with the 2050 food crisis being one of the biggest concerns with agricultural growers.
JW: Can you explain for us what the 2050 food crisis is?
>> So the 2050 food crisis, I've done a lot of looking into and research on, and around in my first year of the classes that I've taken with Mr. Nugent, discovered that with more suburban input and farmland being taken out for more people who are being put onto this earth, that we're not going to have enough food to meet the threshold of the amount of people we're going to have in 2050. So my goal as a grower is to either grow up in hydroponic skyscraper farming, or do biodiversity farming where it includes the environment and is not harmful and is controlled rather than deforested and cleared.
JW: In order to meet that food threshold, it sounds like growing up and growing differently are keys.
DJ: Yes. So I think growing up is one of my personal favorites because that is a pure hydroponic system. But hydroponics can't take things like field crops such as corn. Corn being one of the very tall crops, a little harder to do from a up and down system where you need the, where you need the space for the corn to grow up rather than stay small and be able to harvest that way.
JW: I'd love to learn a little more about hydroponic growing. It sounds like it comes from the water.
DJ: Yes, hydro meaning everything that you put into the water, the plant grows straight from the water. There's no dirt included. And the plants start off in these rock cubes. They're made from a certain type of rock that doesn't really decompose. And so they sit in that and they sprout their roots through it. And typically, what I use is more of those round rock cubes instead of the ones that you plant in them - they're more rock orbs that filtrate the roots that go down into the water. Then into the water - they all reach through the water - and through the water goes the supplements and everything else that you put into it measuring with the pH and any other supplements that you've had.
JW: So this is growing that can take place without a vast amount of land. And that's why you're saying this could be a solution for the future.
DJ: Yes, I've actually done quite a bit of looking and discover the architectural type of growing this way is more beneficial for energy and growing this way helps a lot of people control it in a better manner, such as letting gravity pull the water down instead of pumping it throughout the entire thing.
JW: It definitely sounds like a solution for the future. And we're so happy that we have students like you who are dreaming in this direction to help all of us to be more sustainable. Mr. Nugent, when you hear David talk about his passion and also his knowledge for what he wants to do and what he's already learned, How does it make you feel as a teacher, and also how does it influence how you teach?
KN: Well, of course, it makes me very proud to know that I've kind of influenced these students. You know, that's kind of your goal as a teacher is to make a difference, at least in somebody’s life. And to hear David say that I kind of helped guide his path and his direction, you know, I'm very honored to be a part of that. And, you know, when you hear other students talked about those different goals, and, you know, maybe it's just a small little thing as a freshman, but who knows what that could develop into. And so I think one of the things that we try to do in FFA to encourage those kids to, to keep working on that, and to keep building those projects. and to keep working toward some of those goals, to hopefully built something they can use in the future, a skill that they can use for life.
JW: Absolutely. And I just want to clarify, FFA is the Future Farmers of America in that has been an organization that's been part of your career also. And you started out at Lowell High School yourself.
KN: Yeah, I did. So when I was a high school student, you know, I was part of the FFA program. And really, you know, it started out as the Future Farmers but now it's just known as the FFA organization, just because it's not just farming. There’s so much more to it like hydroponics and the business side of things and horticulture and so much more.
JW: I'm so glad that you clarified that. It is an expansive organization and also a wonderful educational opportunity for all of us. So Mr. Nugent, what would you tell other educators about the importance of asking students what their dreams are, and inspiring those dreams to come true?
KN: Well, I think it is important just to find out where those students kind of see themselves. You know, quite often we look at students and say, well, your goal is to get to college. You got to get to college. You got to get this degree, And maybe by sitting and listening we’ll see where do you want to go in the future? What are your goals? To be able to help make those things happen for them. You know, really, you know, every student is different. Every dream that they have is a little bit different. But as teachers, I think we can help all those students find those dreams and make them come true.
JW: We really appreciate the work that you've done and are doing with David and your students to help make their dreams come true and to help them connect with experiences that are real world and can really make an impact in the future. David, I have a question for you. So tell me about your greens. Are they super delicious and what’s your favorite combination if you're going to make a great salad out of them?
DJ: So my greens can vary from my microgreens to my hydroponics. I remember the first time I had a harvest, I had so much that I didn't know what to do with it, so I bought a home and tried it. It was bibb lettuce and I took it home, threw some Ranch on it, a little croutons. I had extra from all the other little healthy stuff I had in the fridge and I tried it and I was like, you know what? This is actually pretty good. I might be able to do something with this.
JW: And that really got you started!
DJ: And then my microgreen side - microgreens are the sprouts of certain plants - and they grow up until you show them light and then they turn green and force all their energy into their greening of their leaves and then they have a flavor change. So microgreens, some of them could actually be more spicy and hot rather than their full-grown version of themselves.
JW: That's very interesting. I bet you do a lot of experimentation.
DJ: Yeah, I've played around and have had a few things go wrong and things go well and discovered, “fail fast, learn fast”.
JW: What's your goal for next year? And how will you know if you make your dreams come true?
DJ: Next year, I'm actually attending the Michigan State University Institute of Agriculture and Technology for my associate's degree. I believe that is the best way that I can take for the plant path that I want and expanding my horizons to see how far that I can keep going. I don't believe that my dream will ever stop expanding past what I want it to. I don't think I'll be able to achieve that, but I can certainly meet my goal thresholds.
JW: It sounds like a great pathway that you're on. I really want to thank both of you for talking with me today and for sharing your dreams. It's really wonderful to have you here. It's been a very good pleasure.
DJ: Thank you.
KM: Thanks for having us.
JW: And thanks to everyone listening today. If you know a student who dreams big, we would love to share their story. You can share your ideas and hear more dream stories at kentisd.org/yourdream. The Your Dream is Our Dream podcast is presented by Kent ISD in partnership with WGVU.