Sam Bartsch, a junior at Shaler Area High School, has started an unusual greenhouse project to offer locally grown and environmentally friendly produce to low-income communities.
The greenhouse, which will be near the Gardens of Millvale on Butler Street, will use a hydroponic system to grow plants, employing solar panels, natural ventilation and recycled rainwater. Community members will be trained to run the greenhouse and keep the fruits of their labor, Sam said
For two years, Sam, 17, has been crafting and testing hydroponic systems that work without a pump at his family's business, Bartsch Greenhouses on Wible Road in Shaler. The business has been in the family for 135 years.
"Growing up there, I saw the benefits of growing your own food," said Sam, who is president of the junior class. "I am trying to make my way more modern and have a greater impact on needy people and less on the environment."
In Sam's system, the plants are grown on a raft floating on fertilized water in a tub. He said it reduces waste and is more efficient.
Through Shaler Area's Youth Advocacy League, Sam became aware that people in low-income communities don't have access or means to learn about sustainable gardening. That prompted him to think about using a greenhouse growing system to help them.
Gregg Dietz has been mentoring advocacy league members at Shaler Area since the 1990s. He advised Sam and student Lexy Warner when they began a project called Seeds of Hope to provide food to veterans, and Mr. Dietz then helped Sam when he began his own initiative.
"Sam's project is going to be totally off the grid, turning over a crop of lettuce every two weeks," Mr. Dietz said. Other produce, such as tomatoes, will be added as funding becomes available.
"Sam's plan is to offer fresh produce to various impoverished communities in the school district," Mr. Dietz said. "He has worked closely with Millvale, initially as a Seeds of Hope member, then with [Millvale Councilman] Brian Wolovich and the community's tree planting program that started a month ago, and now they offered him space for a greenhouse."
Denise Rudar, treasurer of the Gardens of Millvale, said the tree planting program originally began as part of a flood control project in Millvale, part of which is along Girty's Run. The creek is infamous for flooding during heavy rainstorms, causing damage to the borough's homes and businesses.
The goal of adding Sam's greenhouse project, she said, is for residents to learn how they can extend the area's short growing season year-round.
Sam's project originally was called Off-Grid Gardens, but Sam recently changed the name to Neper, after the Egyptian god of harvest and rejuvenation, because, he said, his greenhouse project, using hydroponics to grow vegetables, is a new way to provide a steady supply of produce to the needy.
His first test garden opened Saturday in Millvale's community gardening area. Open to the public, Sam's Neper greenhouse garden will be used to teach the residents there the benefits of hydroponic gardening.
Mr. Wolovich suggested Sam's project for the borough's environmental district, part of the local green initiative and he was given space for his greenhouse. Sam said he admires the town's push to provide gardening spaces to residents who care for the gardens and then share the harvest with their neighbors in need.
His growing system has won a "highly commended" project award from the Volvo Environmental Program, a partnership between Volvo and the United Nations Environmental Program, and it was a finalist entry in a State Farm Insurance grant contest.
Sam thinks Neper didn't win the State Farm competition because of the project's late entry into the contest, which depended on voting on Facebook.
"They really liked our project, but we didn't get enough votes," Sam said.
He added he hopes the recognition will help to win support as he and his group applies for more grants.
Sam said he plans to attend Duquesne University to study law and hopes for a future in politics.
"I see all these people doing great things in the nonprofit world. I want to do that," he said.
He said he is grateful to Mr. Wolovich, who also is chairman of the community's library board, and the other people in the green initiative there, for donating the property near the library for the greenhouse.
Sam is also grateful to his fellow students, including Anna Cunningham, who have been helping him with Neper.
"Even though you might not have come from an agricultural background, you can still become passionate about the environment," Sam said.
Rita Michel, freelance writer: email@example.com.