Agriscience program teaches urban farming, plant biotechnology to high schoolers

Agriscience teacher Luis Valenzuela shows the aeroponic towers where students will grow plants at Salem-Keizer’s Career Technical Education Center. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Running an agriculture program with no soil is a challenge, but Luis Valenzuela is up to the task.

Valenzuela teaches agriscience at Salem-Keizer’s Career Technical Education Center, a hub where juniors and seniors from across the district take in-depth classes on careers from cosmetology to video game design.

Agriscience is a new addition this year. The program, housed in a former manufacturing plant on Portland Road, doesn’t have garden beds or outdoor space. Instead, Valenzuela plans to teach students how to use aeroponic systems, growing everything from lettuce to herbs in a tower where plants get water and LED light.

“We can grow almost any type of plant,” he said.

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The career center started in 2015 as a partnership between the district and Mountain West Investment Corporation, which bought the building and worked with staff to develop programs.

The first offerings were residential construction and commercial manufacturing, and district staff rolled out two new programs each year. With the new agriscience and culinary arts programs, there are a total of 10.

Only 14 Salem-Keizer students had enrolled in the program by the first day of school, and Valenzuela wants more. Most other programs are near their capacity of 60 to 70 students.

That’s in part due to the program’s newness, but staff think it’s also because prospective students and their parents may not realize what’s being taught.

“When you hear ag science — our community doesn’t know what that is,” said James Weber, assistant principal at the career technical education center.

Valenzuela said his curriculum is inspired by urban agriculture and the role plants increasingly play in urban design. As more people look to grow food inside cities, using rooftop gardens or empty buildings, he wanted to focus on the possibilities of indoor agriculture.

“I think there is a stigma with agriculture,” he said. Many people perceive it as only running or working on farms, Valenzuela said, butwith his background in horticulture, he’s interested in expanding that view.

READ: Career center adds law enforcement, business options for Salem-Keizer students

Dakota Poehler, a junior at McKay High School, was among the students to sign up. After just one day of class, he proclaimed the program “definitely better than regular school” because of the hands-on aspect and chance to socialize with students with similar interests.

Poehler said he loves nature and wanted to learn more about it. He grew up on his grandparents’ farm in Newberg, where they raise sheep and chickens, and is interested in going into the environmental industry.

In the program, students will work in a tissue culture lab to propagate plants, grow food for a cafe operated by culinary students and have opportunities to partner with manufacturing students to design things like wall hangings with living plants.

First-year students will take courses in ecology, food safety and science, and sustainable plant propagation. Second-year students will study plant biotechnology, learning about genetics to breed and engineer plants.

“The sky’s the limit,” Valenzuela said.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: 503-575-1241, [email protected]

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.