PACKWOOD — Students at Pekin High School were working hard to build a new agricultural building on school property. It didn't matter that they don't know exactly what the payoff will be.
"Everybody here is going into it knowing nothing," said student Kirk Talley. "We're going to learn from this."
Planting, gardening and harvesting they do know. Where the mystery is remains with what the new building will do for them.
"It's an experiment," said Pekin student J.D. Hollingsworth. "We'll take data and learn more as we go."
Student Kyle Miller said they'll be planting crops known to do well in cold weather. The building allows them to plant about a month earlier than usual. And if everything goes according to plan, they can safely wait an extra month before they harvest.
"We've already got a greenhouse, and now we're putting up a high tunnel," said teacher Juston Lamb of the Pekin Agriculture Education Department..
His students describe a high tunnel as being similar to a greenhouse in that it protects the plants and provides warmth. But the tunnel is just a roof and walls with no floor.
"A greenhouse," explained J.D., "everything is grown in pots. In a high tunnel, crops are planted in the ground."
Kirk described the tunnel as a type of greenhouse, like a tent, there to protect crops. It's cost effective, too, he said.
"The rails are going down now," said J.D. "The building is only 48 feet, the rails are 96 feet."
So when it's time to protect experimental crop "A," they leave the roof where it stands. But when they want to experiment on crop "B," they roll the entire structure forward to warm and protect that ground.
"It's a garden with a roof," J.D. said.
Lamb said it's about half the cost of a 96-foot building. He said at some point, just like they do with the lettuce students currently grow, produce from the high tunnel at Pekin will be served with school lunch in their own cafeteria.
"They've got to know where their food comes from," Lamb said.
The Poly-Tex Field-Pro Gothic High Tunnel idea "started as a Farm to School Program," said Lamb, adding that a representative from the "local foods" initiative helped get the project rolling. But credit goes to the business community — and the students. Lamb wants his ag students to learn how to grow produce but also how to market it. It was students who raised funds for the project.
"We went to talk to these people and convince them why we needed the grants," said Kyle.
Behind the machine shop and the classroom where Lamb teaches, students were digging, hammering and lifting to get the building built. They appeared to have the work ethic; the rain Thursday barely slowed them down.
"They're learning how to get things done," Lamb said.
To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark