OWATONNA — Owatonna and New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva high schools are among 10 Minnesota schools to be awarded grants to establish habitats for imperiled insect pollinators and monarch butterflies.

The pollinator habitat grants were awarded by the Sand County Foundation and Enel Green Power North America, Inc., to Minnesota agricultural and science educators, according to the Sand County Foundation. Each grant recipient will receive native wildflower seedlings, a training webinar and consultation, and a $1,000 grant for the school district or FFA chapter to offset project expenses.

OHS will use that $1,000 to purchase planting equipment, like a tiller, for the wildflowers, said Liz Tinaglia, OHS Ag teacher. Remaining funds will be utilized to purchase soil and containers, so “we’ll keep it all in the greenhouse.”

Wildflowers will be grown in the high school’s greenhouse for roughly six weeks, at which point they’ll be planted permanently at a location in Steele County, Tinaglia said. While that locale had yet to be determined — as of earlier this month — she planned to contact Owatonna’s Izaak Walton League for ideas, as “the Ikes have worked with us before many times.”

This project is a “perfect fit” for Tinaglia’s greenhouse class, since “we already grow plants and sell them” at the annual plant sale, she said. The greenhouse class is open to juniors and seniors, and she has two sections this semester of 27 and 24 students each.

In addition to raising the wildflowers, this project will educate students in conservation, environmentalism, and natural resources, she said. “It’s a great connection.”

Dan Sorum, the agriculture teacher at NRHEG for 15 years, actually heard about the grant opportunity from his principal, David Bunn, who himself was informed of it by a parent, Sorum said. After doing more research, it became clear “this was a good opportunity to do something in the community to promote pollinators and a good project for my Plant Science II class.”

To qualify for the grants, schools needed greenhouses or suitable indoor growing areas to raise the nearly 600 seedlings of milkweed, prairie blazing star, wild bergamot, and other species they will receive by the end of this month, according to the Sand County Foundation. They were also required to identify a rural area where they will transplant these native wildflowers later this spring, and tend to them through the summer.

While NRHEG has planted vegetation on school grounds, this will be the first time the school has raised plants and then placed them elsewhere, Sorum said. Though the wildflowers will be transported several times before they reach their ultimate destination somewhere in the local community this May, “these are pretty hearty plants, so I’m not too concerned about moving them around.”

The high school already maintains a thriving garden, which “produces a fair amount of food” for the district to serve at lunch, and that garden was also the result of a grant, he said. “I write a lot of” grant proposals, because grants “allow us to do more than we can do (currently),” considering the “tight budgets” of school districts.

Students actually maintain the NRHEG garden during the summer in exchange for scholarships, and this pollinator grant is yet another “educational” opportunity, not only for students, but for the community in general, he said. “We do depend a lot on pollinators.”

“A large portion of the food we eat depends on pollinators,” and “a diverse ecosystem is a healthy ecosystem,” he said. In addition, pollinator habitats “just look nicer,” so there’s an “aesthetic” benefit, as well.

Tinaglia sounded similar notes, explaining these habitats impact not only bees and butterflies, but livestock and humans.

“That ecosystem is foundational, and (it) needs to be protected,” she said. Without the requisite birds, butterflies, and bees, “things could change big-time, and we’d have serious problems.”

Population levels of more than 700 North American bee species are declining substantially due to the one-two punch of habitat loss and pesticide use, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Unfortunately, the trends for butterflies are equally disconcerting, as California’s monarch butterfly population has plummeted 86 percent since 2017, according to a study by the Xerces Society.

The pollinator habitat grant at OHS comes at a felicitous moment considering the city council passed a Pollinator Friendly resolution earlier this month, the 40th city in the state to do so. With the Pollinator Friendly resolution, the city will make efforts to provide and maintain vegetation on city property in a fiscally-responsible manner that considers the health of people, plants, and pollinators. Furthermore, the city will limit the use of systematic pesticides that have a deleterious impact on pollinators.

Minnesota is among the top states in addressing concerns about bee and butterfly populations, according to a recent study by Damon Hall, an assistant professor at Missouri State University. Minnesota has set up programs both to fund pollinator research and to increase pollinator habitat, among other efforts.

May will be an extremely “busy” month for Tinaglia and her students, as, in addition to this project, they’ll also conduct their plant sale May 9, she said. Nevertheless, she’s energized by this new opportunity with wildflowers, and “we’ll take (good) care of them.”

Sorum echoed those sentiments, saying, “We enjoy opportunities like this,” and “I’m looking forward to it.”

Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan.

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