By Eve Pranis

"What it would be like to colonize another planet?" mused Paul Grant's Ravinia, IL, fifth graders, who had been studying colonization. "How would we grow the necessary food?" Paul reports that a former graduate, who was then a space shuttle pilot, talked to the class about the idea of raising plants hydroponically (without soil). Thus inspired, Paul secured a $600 school district innovation grant and the class purchased a hydroponics system and high intensity lights. Colonizing space was out of the question, but students learned that an Earthly favorite, basil, was easy to grow with only water and nutrients.

As they became immersed in growing the herb, the youngsters were fully responsible for monitoring pH and nutrient concentrations and for harvesting and weighing their soilless crop. (The lights and nutrient flow were controlled by timers.) As their hydroponics knowledge and confidence grew, they produced enough basil to start selling to parents. After all, who could resist the kids' appeal: A bunch of basil in a bag for a buck? Not that it was all smooth sailing. "The students learned a particularly tough business lesson when the cleaning crew unplugged the unit over vacation," says Paul.

By 1992, Paul's students, who were by then proficient basil growers, learned that basil was a high value winter crop and decided to test the waters of corporate culture. From these humble beginnings, the not-for-profit Basil-Buy-Us Corporation blossomed. The first big market students cracked was a local French bistro just a block from the school. Paul explains that the school's principal laid the groundwork by talking with the restaurant owner about the project before students made their appeal. Then the young entrepreneurs tackled the negotiations.

The bistro's chef decided that the goods were, in fact, very good and fresh to boot. He began ordering weekly bags of basil, which students hand-delivered. (They either walked or received rides from parent volunteers.) "The chef and owner really made a big deal," says Paul. "They invited students back into the kitchen, boasted to the youngsters' parents, gave the kids full credit on the menu, and even created a whole menu of basil recipes."

Bustling Business Operations

"Ours has been a 'seat of the pants' operation where students develop an understanding of running a business as they go along and realize what needs to happen at each stage," says Paul. He explains that each kid had a chance to shine because they were all good at different things. Those who preferred hands-on work tackled such projects as building the light rack and putting together plumbing. Students with a passion for plants nurtured the basil, measured and tracked how much each plant produced, maintained pH, and so on. The computer crew created spreadsheets and kept the books for the business. In the early days of the business, the advertising group created print ads and even made a 20-minute video infomercial with support from a parent who works in television. "Now we can't even grow enough basil to meet the demand, so we have much less need to advertise," explains Paul. The corporation even set up a board of directors that grapples with the everyday tasks and challenges of running a small business.

As word got out and demand for the fresh herbs increased, the entrepreneurs used profits to purchase supplies and expand the empire to six growing units (including one for crop experiments) and two more schools. As new systems and customers have been added, the growers added new varieties of basil: 'Italian basil,' 'Opal Purple,' and 'Mammoth.' "When we set out to negotiate with a new potential customer, students first write notes for their presentation delivery," explains Paul. A teacher typically precedes the students' visit to alert the business owners. Delighted with the fresh bounty, several restaurants, local caterers, and the produce department of a high-end grocery store eventually signed on. Individual students were matched with each account so they could provide customer service and ensure timely deliveries.

Giving Back

Before long, Basil-Buy-Us had surpassed being a self-supporting enterprise. Since the young entrepreneurs actually had money to spare, they pondered philanthropy. (The original grant had long since been paid off.) Class discussions prompted a decision to donate to the Make a Wish Foundation and Children's Heart Foundation (in memory of a child who had died). Their desire to make a difference became a driving force for involving others in their effort. Some students even negotiated a deal with a grocery store to kick back to one of the charities 50 cents from each bag sold! Young designers created a sticker for the basil bags with the basil business logo and a note saying that for each bag purchased, 50 cents would go to find a cure for childhood leukemia.

How they Grew

"The kids have learned so many real-life lessons about businesses (including how chaotic they can get) and grown from dealing with problems that arose," notes Paul. With a goal of providing a fresh product, for instance, they had to figure out how to ensure that they cut just as much basil as they needed on a given day. One year, students learned an indelible lesson about the risks inherent in a plant-based business. When they tried growing their basil in a new medium ("cocoa peat"), they had serious whitefly problems. After struggling to find a cause and solution, they contacted the supplier who admitted that the pests had come in with the bags of peat. "Although we switched back to using Rockwool as a growing medium, they'd already lost much of their crop," says Paul.

The Basil-Buy-Us crew has repeatedly received thumbs up from parents, business owners, the community, and even the Department of Education, which gave the project two awards for creating an exemplary school/home connection. Paul reports that the fifth graders' success and enthusiasm for their venture also spilled over to younger students in the school. The older mentors have helped teach second and third graders how to grow basil, which they practice in their classrooms in hopes of taking over the reins someday.

This year, with a new greenhouse set up for hydroponics production, students have discussed what new crops they might add to their product list. "Some students had eaten sushi and learned that they could grow one of the herbs it contained," says Paul. Thinking it might be a high-value crop a student and parent tracked down seeds and the class tried growing it. "In the end, the class realized that they still couldn't fill the demand for basil and questioned why they would want to take on something new. So they adopted a new slogan: 'Let's Grow What We Know!'"

How does Paul know that, at least for some students, the lessons sustained? "Our success inspired my fifth graders to research and create a new business: Bugs-Buy-Us," he reports. "Students buy cricket eggs, raise them to adult size, and sell them in school as food for lizard pets." He explains that some former students have created hydroponics setups when they got to highschool and others have come back in later years to share news of their own small businesses.

Sage Advice

Paul shares a few additional words of wisdom for teachers contemplating a student-run business:

  1. "You've got to believe that students learn through their own experiences. Consider reading (or re-reading) John Dewey to understand how such an experience helps students learn to function in a democratic society."

  2. Recognize that the opportunities for learning are all there. The science, technology, and math skills involved in growing plants is a given. The National Council for Social Studies economics strands include learning about productivity, markets, price, and so on. The business of marketing entails negotiating contracts, making presentations, delivering services and products, writing ads, accounting, and routinely solving problems.

  3. If your business needs equipment, look for grants. Basil-Buy-Us was launched with a $600 award. If students plan to sell items to a restaurant, they might be willing to extend a loan for start-up money.

  4. Make sure you have a product that would sell, but then be flexible and adjust your business according to consumer demands.

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