Greenhouse a big step in Tenco’s growth

Friday, October 14, 2016

Hydroponic facility sees grand opening

Managing Editor

OTTUMWA — It’s one thing to hit the ground running after taking a new job.

It’s another to formally open a major program nine days after starting one. Cheryl Plank didn’t seem too concerned, though.

Plank is the new executive director for Tenco and on Thursday she was overseeing the grand opening of the organization’s new hydroponic greenhouse. She knew the work was getting close even before she took the job.

And it wasn’t really a surprise that the work was being done. Tenco has a strong reputation among Iowa organizations that provide similar services.

"I! t was on their website, and I had talked to some colleagues of mine who were very well aware of the work out here," Plank said. "Overall, the organization is just a very motivated, enthusiastic group."

While former director Benjamin Wright was not present for the ribbon cutting, Board President Leisa Walker said his influence led to Thursday’s celebration.

"This has been a dream. I have to give credit to our past executive director," she said. He had experience with a similar project, and the board embraced the idea when he brought it to them five years ago.

While most people’s backyard gardens are wrapping up for 2016, dozens of tomato plants inside the greenhouse still towered over guests. There are several varieties being grown. The traits vary in more than just the size of the tomato, and some have a much thinner, more fragile skin than anticipated. They’ll probably will be phased out over time.

Rows of young lettuce grows a few feet over, and some spinach is getting started in a tray. There’s no soil in the facility, which helps cut down on the risk of contaminants on the food. Much of it will eventually go to the! food bank.

While Tenco’s employees are paid minimum wage, some full-time workers aren’t paid at all. Bumblebees inside a small hive help pollinate the plants. They kept buzzing Thursday as visitors walked past, but didn’t really seem worried about the people. It is a bit of a concern for Tenco, though, since it means clients with severe allergies to bee stings wouldn’t be a good match for the greenhouse.

They may still be able to work at the facility in years to come, though. Plans are in the works to expand into an outdoor growing area as well. Such a step would increase the skills taught to clients. That, Walker said, is one of the real advances over the past several decades. Organizations like Tenco have gone from offering rote, repetitive work to opportunities that can teach some marketable skills.

! Tenco received multiple state and federal grants to build th! e facility, along with support from numerous businesses and agencies in Wapello County. Many were represented during Thursday’s ceremony.

"I’ve just been so delighted to see so many people from the community come together and be involved with this," Walker said.

Plank was impressed, too. The greenhouse is part of an ongoing process that pushes Tenco to evolve. And she said that’s critical to success.

"If you work in this field you realize you can’t hold back," she said. "Our world is constantly changing. So you change. If you don’t, you won’t survive."

Supporters hope the greenhouse will help Tenco do a lot more than survive. They want it to thrive.

Matt Milner can be reached at and followed @mwm! ilner.

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Ottumwa Economic Development Corporation 217 East Main Street Ottumwa, Iowa  52501
Phone 641-682-3465 Fax 641-682-3466