Chris Collins
The Baker City Herald

A group of Baker FFA members and their Agricultural Science instructors, Bibiana Gifft and Nicole Merchant, gathered Thursday at the site where a new “controlled environment agriculture center” will be erected soon.

Baker School District Superintendent Mark Witty and Julie Huntington, a member of the 5J School Board, attended the ground-breaking ceremony.

The two gave an enthusiastic report to other directors of what the new center will mean, not only to the Agriculture Science Department, but to other aspects of Baker Technical Institute during Thursday’s Board meeting.

The new structure carries a price tag of about $165,000, Doug Dalton, BTI president, said earlier in the week. It will replace older greenhouses that were lost to the heavy winter snowstorms of 2016.

The cost of the new building is being paid by donations, insurance money and Measure 98 funding, Dalton stated in a press release. Measure 98, among other things, allocates money to schools throughout the state for career and technical training.

Dalton said the new agriculture center will give students a state-of-the-art facility for hands-on learning in the field of controlled environment agriculture or CEA.

Dalton explained that CEA is a technology based approach toward the production of plants and their products, such as vegetables and flowers.

“We are very excited to see this project begin,” Dalton stated. “This center will give our students learning opportunities in agriculture that have not existed before.”

Dalton said the new structure will not only allow the FFA Chapter to bring back popular community projects such its hanging baskets, but it also will allow BTI to partner with industry to tie education to this expanding field.

“We simply see investing in agriculture education as key to keeping communities in Eastern Oregon thriving,” Dalton said.

To prepare the site for the new structure, playground equipment that had at one time served kindergarten students housed in the northwest wing of Baker High School, which is now home to BTI, was removed.

Dan Srack, the District’s maintenance supervisor, said Wednesday, that he made the decision to give the equipment, which he thought had outlived its usefulness to the District, to a community member whose daughter has special needs in exchange for the person’s labor in clearing the equipment from the site.

“There was a mix-up,” Srack said while working at the site. “I was trying to help a father and his daughter and I called it the wrong way.”

In a press release issued earlier this week, Witty said the district has a “surplus process” that Srack did not follow.

“The playground equipment is now back in our possession and we are researching potential uses for the structure,” Witty said.

In the meantime, the equipment is stored behind the track at BHS.

Witty stated in the press release that the District is working with the company that handles its property and liability insurance to determine if the equipment still meets safety standards for use in schools.

“If the equipment is determined to be safe for public use, the District will meet with school and community entities to determine the best location and use for the equipment,” he said.