SCOTTSBLUFF— Harvesting lemons and oranges, maybe even bananas.

It's been done already. The North Platte Natural Resources District is planning to do it in the future.

The NRD is raising funds for a solar-powered, geothermal-heated greenhouse, sunk 4 feet into the ground over a network of ducts circulating 54-degree air warmed by the earth. The greenhouse would measure 126 by 17 feet and stand 14 feet high, said NRD Assistant Manager Barb Cross, who is overseeing the project.

General Manager John Berge conceived the project, which will include an outdoor learning facility, to promote NRD's research and education missions.

"One of the things John told me was that he wanted to put in a greenhouse," Cross said. "I super-sized it."

The complex will be built on 1.6 acres leased from the Western Nebraska Airport Authority just south of the NRD's office building on Airport Road. It will cost about $75,000 to complete, with $50,000 of that dedicated to the greenhouse. More than 20 local donors, including Platte Valley Bank, First State Bank, Oregon Trail Community Foundation, Western Nebraska Community College and 21st Century Equipment, have contributed to the project to help match a grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust.

"This is all through donations. We are not using tax dollars for this project," Cross said. "The support from the community has been huge."

Work on the greenhouse is expected to begin next spring, pending expected approval of the NET grant.

"If we have two weeks' notice, we can put it up in two weeks," she said. "The major issue is if the ground is still frozen."

Solar power will provide the $500 worth of electricity needed each year to run the fans. The greenhouse panels will be made of impact-resistant Lexan plastic, manufactured in Alliance.

The educational facility will serve students involved in FFA projects and in ag programs at WNCC. Scientists from the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension center will provide technical assistance.

"They're willing to help us. We'll have a lot of expert advice," Cross said.

Practical experience will be provided by intern Jenifer Berge Sauter, who will operate the greenhouse, and by Russ Finch of Alliance, who has been growing a variety of plants, including citrus trees, in his own greenhouse for about 25 years.

"He raises oranges and lemons and avocados and figs and things like that," Cross said. "We should be able to raise all kinds of citrus. Russ thinks we're far enough south that we should be able to raise bananas."

The greenhouse will have room for up to 21 trees.

"I don't plan to plant that many — maybe 15," she said.

The rest of the space will be used for whatever else they can fit into it.

"We're going to see what we can get to grow here," she said.

The learning facility will include dozens of species of trees and grasses, as well as beehives and plantings to attract pollinators, such as monarch butterflies. The tree and grass varieties will be labeled to help students with tree identification and range judging. Other research will focus on water usage, food production and soils.

"They can come out here three or four times and we'll never be teaching them the same thing," Cross said.

The facility will be open to the public, and one of the goals will be to aid ag producers interested in grasses, trees or maybe even a greenhouse of their own. Water and electricity usage will be tracked. The grasses will include U.S. Department of Agriculture Conservation Reserve Program varieties recommended for haying, grazing and supporting wildlife.

"People can come and look at these grasses and see what kind of development they want to do on their property," she said. "We'll be able to develop a business plan for anybody who wants to look into doing this."

Food raised in the greenhouse will be donated to the West Nebraska Veterans Home, with the surplus going to regional programs such as Community Action Partnership of Western Nebraska, food pantries and school backpack programs.

Cross supported similar efforts in her former job with USDA Farm Services, including a Bean Day for food donations and a community food plot.

"We were donating food out of that and I wanted to continue that here," she said. The service aspect of the project has encouraged donors, and she plans to stress community involvement to visiting students.

"That's one of the things I want them to learn out here. People are going to work in the greenhouse. They're not getting paid. They're donating their time to help other people," she added.

Berge Sauter, who has worked at the Gering Garden Center and as a volunteer at the Community Greenhouse in Gering, said the greenhouse will be producing food by as early as next fall.

"We hope to have root vegetables to start distribution, and there will be a small outside garden too," she said. "We're going to fill that thing. I'm so excited to work in there and see what we can do."

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