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Shown are Kelly Weaver; Katrina Boyum, teacher; Jacey Othaus; and Dr. Doug Ohmer, Northern State University.  Award Sponsor, SD Agriculture Foundation. Photo Courtey of Kelly Fritz

A high school junior from Florence High School tapped her innovative spirit to win an Ag Innovations competition, directed at exposing youth to new ideas and innovation as a way to promote entrepreneurship.

Jacey Orthaus created a product called Feather-Lite Mix to win her category for the Big IDEA competition in Aberdeen. Her project developed a light-weight potting mix for gardeners, which was fueled by her desire to help older people.

Thirty-eight others competed in the field for Agriculture Innovation. The South Dakota Agriculture Foundation awarded Orthaus a $500 cash prize and Northern State University donated a $500 scholarship.

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Jacey Orthaus, winner of the Ag Innovations category at the Big IDEA competition. Courtesy photo

“My grandmother, Karla Orthaus, inspired the idea, which made me want to succeed,” Jacey said. “My mom, Jill Orthaus, was a lot of help to me, too.”

When searching for an idea last fall, Jacey Orthaus thought of the times her grandmother would ask her to come to the farm and help with gardening. It bugged Karla that she couldn’t do everything she’d been able to in the past. She has raised beds, but also a lot of pots for flowers.

When developing Feather-Lite Mix, Jacey thought of her grandmother and others like her.

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Inspiration from her grandmother Karla Orthaus, left, and her mom, Jill Orthaus, right, helped Jacey Orthaus develop Feather-lite Mix. Courtesy photo

Jacey worked at the Sioux Valley Greenhouse in Watertown last summer. When helping older people by carrying bags of potting soil to their vehicles, some commented that they wish they had her at home to help carry the bags.

“They love to garden, but it’s hard for them to move heavy bags," Jacey said. "My idea provides a product which is 60 percent lighter than others on the market. By using this, the people keep their independence and continue their hobby they love. I tried it out by growing pea plants in it. It worked great.”

From what Jacey learned, there have been no major changes in the potting soil for years.

Tapping the knowledge she got from working at the greenhouse, Jacey started with biodegradable packing peanuts from UPS. Through trial and error, she put together organic soil, fertilizers, peat moss, perlite and the bits of packing peanuts. 

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Biodegradable packing peanuts are key to making the Feather-Lite Mix that won Jacey Orthaus honors at the competition. Courtesy photo

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Jacey Orthaus grew several different seeds in the Feather-Lite Mix. Courtesy photo

UPS makes biodegradable peanuts from plant-based ingredients, such as corn and wheat. Making use of the packing peanuts is good for the environment.

“The Big IDEA competition provides an opportunity for my students to learn about real-life business challenges as they plan, build, and innovate a business idea of their own," said Katrina Boyum, Jacey’s teacher at Florence High School. "It puts students in front of mentors who walk them through financial problems and marketing strategies.“

Boyum teaches a class called Project Based Learning. The class, which was started last year, provided a great learning experience for Jacey.

“It challenged us to do a lot of thinking," Jacey said. "She gave us problems and we had to find new solutions. I would suggest taking this class to others because it broadens your perspective.”

Jacey said she didn’t think she had a mind for business, but this class got her thinking in new ways. Rather than working for someone, she may consider being self-employed or even acting as a manager.

For now, she’s considering work the health field. She’s very grateful for the training she received in 4-H in public speaking and helping her to think on the spot.

“Our class looks forward to competing in this program each year," Boyum explained. "My students have great ideas on how to make their communities better. They are the future of innovation and business for South Dakota and the Big IDEA competition helps them learn new skills and build a network of relationships. In Florence, we encourage students to be involved in this program and offer support for their business ideas and future plans.”

In the contest, they define Agriculture Innovation as an agriculture business that incorporates innovation, technology and/or leadership into agriculture or agriculture education. The competition encourages young people to create opportunities close to home. Homegrown businesses are key to the success of rural communities such as Florence.

Jacey firmly believes she could turn her idea into a business.

“If I were to get started on it, I think people, especially older people, would be interested in Feather-lite Mix," she said. “I was really surprised by how intrigued the judges were with my project. They said that not many projects focus on the elderly and how to help them. They asked a lot of questions but I could answer them, no problem.”

With an attitude like that, Jacey should have no problem in facing challenges, no matter what she does.

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