H-LO FFA Chapter to develop school garden

OKABENA -- With increased interest in locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, the Heron Lake-Okabena FFA Chapter is taking on a grow-your-own project with the creation of a school garden in Okabena.

Heron Lake-Okabena FFA members Leah Schmid (left) and Eli Liepold (right) join FFA advisor and agriculture instructor Loretta Halbur inside the greenhouse on the HL-O high school campus in Okabena. Students have been working to get the greenhouse ready to start vegetables and fruit that will be planted in their school garden. (Julie Buntjer / Daily Globe)

OKABENA - With increased interest in locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, the Heron Lake-Okabena FFA Chapter is taking on a grow-your-own project with the creation of a school garden in Okabena.

The concept isn’t new in this small Jackson County town. In 2009, the school established a community garden, selling shares and encouraging local residents to plant their own food plot. After several years and some changes in the high school’s agriculture department that spearheaded the project, the community garden died out.

Now, with Loretta Halbur just into her second year as the school’s only agriculture instructor and FFA advisor, the local garden idea is being nurtured and brought back to life.

“There was always the mindset to have a garden - an outdoor lab - to grow our own food,” Halbur said of the plans to make the garden a school project led by FFA members.

She was approached by the high school’s head cook last spring about growing fruits and vegetables that could be featured on the lunch menu at the HL-O school. Just months into her teaching career at the school, however, Halbur needed more time to develop a plan.


As she laid the groundwork, Halbur’s first step was to secure a grant from the Minnesota Department of Education to fund an agriculture summer education position to cover her salary. With that grant secured last fall, Halbur can spend her summer supervising FFA members and any other students interested in working in the garden.

The Department of Education grant was the first of several that Halbur pursued to make the school garden a reality. The FFA chapter was also awarded a Perkins grant to purchase three new greenhouse benches for facility that sits just outside the back door of the agriculture classroom at the Okabena school.

Agriculture students have already built a new shelving unit inside the greenhouse to gear up for the arrival of seeds and other supplies necessary to begin growing fruit and vegetable plants next month.

“Our greenhouse is kind of undergoing a little bit of a makeover,” Halbur said of the nearly 25-year-old hoop-roofed building. “It hasn’t been heavily used in the last few years.”

Halbur then applied for a grant through the HL-O Community Foundation, which, if awarded, will be used to purchase seed, as well as equipment such as hoes, buckets and a new wheelbarrow. The chapter still has the tiller it purchased when there was a community garden, which can be pulled behind a four-wheeler to work up the soil.

“The (Horticulture II) class can fix it up and work the ground,” Halbur said.

Eventually, Halbur said she’d like to seek a larger grant to either repair or replace the existing greenhouse.

“There are a lot of grants available,” she said. “I’m able to look at the community garden program and how they were able to get their funding.”


Focus on fresh Halbur said the primary goal with the one-acre school garden plot is to provide students with locally grown, fresh produce through the school lunch program.

“It starts small,” Halbur said, noting that for the first year, the chapter plans to grow potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and watermelon. They may also try lettuce and radishes.

“At the high school, half to two-thirds of our lunch line is fresh vegetables and fruits,” she said. “If we have it locally grown, kids will take more investment in the foods they eat.”

The produce harvested during the summer months will be used for the summer school program, with excess sold at a local farmer’s market or donated to the food shelf in Heron Lake.

With Heron Lake losing its only grocery store in recent years, Halbur said it’s important to give people a local source for fresh produce. Those who can’t afford to drive to a larger community’s grocery store for fresh fruits and vegetables would at least have a source for part of the year.

“I think having something locally grown or locally sourced would be awesome,” she added. “If we can provide some of that fresh produce at the food shelf, I think that would be a huge benefit.”

Learning by doing Just as the FFA motto reads, “Learning to Do, Doing to Learn, Earning to Live, Living to Serve,” Halbur said the school garden will provide not only FFA members, but others in the community, an opportunity to learn about agriculture and helping others.

She will incorporate the project into lesson plans on growing food, safe food handling and produce packaging, among other ideas.


“Horticulture Design may do some garden design and companion planting ideas,” Halbur said. “Hort II will focus on growing, and ag leadership will focus on marketing.”

As of now, there are no plans to hire students to work in the garden this summer - she’s hoping there will be enough FFA members and students willing to volunteer their time.

“Hopefully as time goes on we can add in student employment,” she said, adding that it could turn into a viable Supervised Agriculture Experience for two to three students eventually.

The HL-O FFA Chapter boasts 45 members, and Halbur said some - considering a career in elementary education - will get to lead lessons and tours of the garden plot during summer school. Already, the excitement is building among the students - and for Halbur as well.

“I was involved in the old community garden,” she said. “I saw the potential it had. With the rise of locally grown food in the last five to 10 years, this is even more important now.”

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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