Marfa students cultivate vertical farming skills with classroom lessons, Village Farms tour

Village Farms Marfa greenhouse Facility Manager Abby Lange shows seventh-graders Adeline Marquez, Heidi Montes and Ulises Estrada a box containing European bumble bees, which the company uses to pollinate its tomato crops.

MARFA — Marfa Junior High students took in the striking sight of 20 acres of cascading tomato vines on a recent tour of Marfa’s Village Farms greenhouse. Sun streamed in through the clear roof as seventh- and eighth-graders peered up at the vertical farm — a real-world operation larger in scale, yet similar in principle to the hydroponic farm students have been cultivating in their science classroom. 

The “Flex Farm” in teacher Lora Loya’s classroom is a part of a Big Bend Conservation Alliance initiative to introduce local students to hydroponic gardening. The stand-alone vertical farm gives students hands-on experience producing greens — they sprout seeds, adjust water chemistry, install a U.V. light and add soil nutrients. With the help of students, the farm can grow up to 25 pounds of greens every four weeks.

Loya said her students have enjoyed the process of working with the plants day in and day out, from constructing the farm itself and hooking up the water pump to harvesting and packaging the lettuce weeks later. She said the experience of growing their own food from seeds was rewarding, especially when they were able to share the produce with other MISD students. 

“The student body was then able to have fresh salads for lunch prepared by the Marfa cafeteria staff,” Loya said. “We received many compliments on the freshness of the lettuce. It was a great feeling for the students to be able to hear such positive feedback from their hard work.” 

Last week 12 seventh-grade students, along with Loya and Junior High English teacher Jaylia Foster, took a tour of an industrial vertical farm located in Marfa’s backyard: Village Farms’ tomato greenhouse. The visit was led by facility manager Abby Lange, who walked students through the ins and outs of how the grower produces 10 million pounds of tomatoes a year that are shipped to locales as far away as Miami, New York and Vancouver. 

Students learned about the importance of preventing contamination to the crops — they were given plastic booties to wear over their shoes and were required to wash their hands before and after visiting the greenhouse. They also witnessed Village Farms employees diligently disinfecting equipment each time they moved on to a new row of plants. 

“I do think it’s crazy how clean you have to be to get in the greenhouse,” seventh-grader Aidyn Gonzales said. “Every time they get done with something, [they] have to clean everything that [they] use so nothing can get infected.” 

Lange explained how the drip irrigation system the company uses is designed to capture and reuse water and how they keep the tomato plants warm at night — pipes that act as tracts for hydraulic lift carts also transport hot water. Students asked if tomatoes were required to be a certain size, to which Lange said they were.

Some students said they were surprised that the company’s policy is to throw out tomatoes that fall onto the greenhouse floor. Lange explained it was a quality control measure, to ensure no produce was contaminated and passed on to customers. 

Seventh-grader Tayvian Valenzuela said he appreciated Lange’s extensive knowledge of the greenhouse’s growing cycle and being able to ask questions. “I learned about a bunch of new stuff that I could use in the future,” he said. 

Students and teachers joked about the temptation to reach out and pick a ripe, red tomato directly off the vine. Lange said in addition to the Texas sun, another secret to the tomato farm’s success is European bumble bees — a docile variety the company introduces to the greenhouse every 14 weeks to ensure all of the flowers are pollinated, resulting in fully-formed, fruitful tomato clusters. 

“I really liked [the tour] and it gave me a good perspective of the different ways to farm and grow,” said seventh-grader Mikayla Bentley. “What surprised me the most is that they use bumblebees to pollinate.” 

Foster, who was visiting the greenhouse for the first time along with the students, said the detail paid to every step of the growing process as well as the sanitation and weighing and shipping was impressive and hopefully a lesson in hard work and diligence the students take back to the classroom. “It is these attributes that I hope the students took in as well as the real-life connections to what they are studying in science,” Foster said.