FAIRFIELD — The state’s first charter high school unveiled a new project reflective of its agricultural mission today as students from around the state returned to campus for the start of the school year.

Three new greenhouses opened today at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in a ceremony involving students, faculty members and the family of Shirley Bastien, an active gardener and former board member at the school to whom one of the new greenhouses waas dedicated.

closThe project has been a long-term goal of the charter school, which opened for its second year with the first day of school today. The greenhouses will be incorporated into the agricultural curriculum and used to grow food for students and faculty members on campus.

Both new and old students gathered at the Good Will-Hinckley campus today to celebrate.

“I love this and I think it will be an awesome project,” said senior Tim Thompson, 17. The greenhouses mean the school can produce more of its own food and that students can be directly involved in growing it, he said. It is also a chance to expand on an aquaponics project students worked on last year that they used to grow lettuce and peas, he said.

The Maine Academy of Natural Sciences operated as a magnet school for one year. Before that, the campus was home to the Good Will-Hinckley home for Boys and Girls — a home, school and working farm operated by students.

John Willey, 79, a 1952 graduate of the school, said the greenhouse project was a way of reinstating the farm program around which the campus had operated for decades.

“Having a farm on campus involves everything a kid needs to know to be self-sufficient when they leave school — discipline, responsibility and affection for the natural world,” he said.

Good Will-Hinckley, founded in 1889, was a residential school that closed in 2009 because of financial problems. It opened the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in September 2011.

The three greenhouses, which were built using grants from the Bastien family as well as the Farm Credit of Maine program and the school’s money, will include an aquaponics system, a method that combines fish tanks with vegetable gardens to recycle the fish waste and use it as fertilizer for the plants.

They are the latest development on the 1,800-acre campus the charter school shares with the L.C. Bates Museum, the Glenn Stratton Learning Center and a new agriculture program at Kennebec Valley Community College; and one way the school hopes to further its mission of giving students a hands-on learning experience with an emphasis on agriculture and farming.

The school already has a vegetable garden on campus, and last school year students raised chickens, said Executive Director Glenn Cummings. In the future, there are plans to work with the college, which recently started a two-year sustainable-agriculture degree program that it plans to run at a recently purchased old dairy farm on the Good Will-Hinckley campus.

Both projects are part of a growing interest in agriculture among young people and represent a need for agriculture education, said John Rebar, executive director of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture census, the number of farms in the United States has increased 4 percent from 2002 to 2007. In Maine, the number of farms increased from 7,196 in 2002 to 8,136 in 2007, an increase of about 13 percent.

One reason for the growth is that Maine has land access that includes natural resources such as soil and water that are limited in other states, he said. Because it is on the Eastern Seaboard, Maine also has access to ports and shipping routes in New England and elsewhere on the East Coast, which represents room for economic growth, Rebar said.

In addition, there has been an explosion of interest in locally grown food, judging by growth in the number of farmer’s markets and farms that process their own food and other products, he said. Maine’s ability to produce large amounts of quality food can help support the world’s growing population and demand for food, Rebar said.

All of these reasons mean more young people are interested in farming and agriculture; but unlike previous generations, many of them did not grow up on farms, he said.

“That’s where programs like what is happening at the Good Will campus come in. Those types of programs are helping young people learn the science and business skills they need to know so they can look at farming as a potential career,” Rebar said.

Last year the school enrolled 45 students, and this year that number has increased to 65, Cummings said. It has six teachers, four AmeriCorps volunteers and three administrators.

The new greenhouses will be used for biology, chemistry, earth science and physics lessons, said Jeff Chase, agriculture specialist and science teacher at the Maine School of Natural Sciences. He said he was particularly excited about the aquaponics system, which will be used to raise tilapia as well as leafy greens in one of the greenhouses.

“It’s a cool way of seeing how things naturally recycle themselves,” said Chase, 41. “All the components of science that we want to teach we can find right here.”

Although the aquaponics system is not installed yet, it should be running by this winter, Chase said. In the meantime, students have started weeding and cutting grass in the other greenhouses, which will be used for test growing, starting seeds and doing experiments with grafting and creating hybrids.

“Not only will we be able to grow our own food year-round, but we hope to save money, have a locally sourced sustainable food system here on campus and provide excellent nutrition for our kids,” Cummings said.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368
rohm@mainetoday.com