Pam Dudding-Burch
Contributing writer

What started as an idea and a $500 grant seems to be ‘growing’ into something special at Craig County Public Schools.

Each year, the Craig County Farm Bureau Women’s Committee looks for a community project. “We try to look for innovative ideas that will help to grow the agriculture industry and help others, especially the youth, to understand more about the importance of agriculture,” Mary Hunter, a member of the committee, shared. Hunter is also the Interim Business Manager of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and one who helped to secure a $500 Grant to launch this exciting venture.

The committee’s goal is to educate and strengthen the community’s knowledge about agriculture through educational programs and community projects.

“This year, as our group was looking for a community project, we began talking with Chris Ratliff, who is the Pre-K Special Education Teacher at McCleary Elementary about a garden project at the school,” Hunter said. “Chris was excited about the project and was happy to work with us.”

After getting approval from the school to use the courtyard area, they began planning the garden with the assistance of Adam Taylor, the Catawba Sustainability Center Manager and Andy Seibel of the VT Extension Services on a design for the garden.

This is when they also applied for and received the $500 Our Food Link 2017 Grant from the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) to help with the costs of the project. A detailed grant application had to be submitted.

The primary objectives of the project were to;

• Promote an understanding of where food comes from and build an appreciation for agriculture that will go from childhood to adulthood

• Create environment awareness for students that can be shared with the community

• Learn how to take care of a garden from seed to harvest and share the experience with our community

• Use the garden to teach students math, science, reading, art, leadership, social skills and strength and confidence in their abilities

• Inspire students and families to begin gardening projects at home

The AFBF asked for an explanation on how the project will build consumer trust in the groups they selected:

• Consumers today have become removed from agriculture, and in many cases, this separation can foster negative attitudes about how our food is grown. Research has shown that by having shared values, consumers begin to respect, understand and honor agriculture.

• This gardening project will start students at an early age on a path of being committed caretakers to soil and recognizing the value of agriculture. Research shows that a connection with nature at an early age is extremely important as childhood experiences are strongly linked to adult attitudes; thus participation in this gardening project can influence adult environmental attitudes and actions and instill appreciation and respect for nature and agriculture in adulthood.

• It will also help to build enthusiasm among students for gardening and once shared with their families, can inspire the family to begin their gardens.

• Students will interact with teachers, parents and community volunteers who will allow them to reach many consumers in our community. As our community hears from these students, we can build consumer trust that can go from youth to adulthood.

The goal of the project was to: Install raised beds for a school garden project with a primary focus on the special education students in the school.

• Since these students learn best when engaged in hands-on learning, we will be able to teach them environmental awareness where they take responsibility for living things, understand life cycles, experience the way agriculture affects the environment and foster a curiosity about nature.

• The students will learn how to take care of a garden from seed to harvest and develop an understanding of where their food comes from.

• They will learn to cook the foods they raise, try new foods and if the harvest is large enough, market those foods to teachers and other students at the school.

• In addition to learning agriculture, the gardens will be used to expose the students to math, science, reading and art while building strength and confidence in their abilities.

• The garden will also become part of a larger program that will utilize a buddy project with middle school science students who will incorporate STEM and pollination projects into the garden.

• By combining the groups, we will enrich the special education students’ lives as well as allow the middle school students the opportunity to learn about agriculture, experience hands-on science projects, grow in leadership and learn skills needed for relationship growth.

• The garden will consist of 3×5-raised beds that will include plants that utilize our five senses, put food on our tables and attract insects for the study of their life cycle and pollination.

• We will provide Ag in the Classroom training for the teachers and utilize AITC lesson plans for the project.

When the grant was approved, Taylor and Seibel assisted in the building and delivering of the garden beds to the school in late May. “Members of the Farm Bureau and community then completed the set up in early June, and we excitedly turned it over to the school project teacher, Chris Ratliff,” Hunter explained.

The interest multiplied at the school, as Stacey Crowder and other teachers participated in creative activities with their students.

Many garden plants which were donated by the High School Agriculture Class, were grown such as watermelon, squash, peppers and tomatoes. They also had a butterfly garden as well. “The children seemed to enjoy truly and it was easy to get them to participate!” the teachers agreed.

“Squash was the first to produce and matured just before the start of school so during the first week of school we fried up some for a fun tasting experience,” Ratliff said. “Tomatoes came next and were the first in school harvest for the students to pick themselves.”

Ratliff shared that the gardens provided new ‘wonders’ for her Pre-K students. “Everything didn’t turn out exactly like we expected,” Ratliff commented, but she said there were so many stories about the many students enjoying watching the plants grow, and learning on a daily basis.“ The students learned that while the shape of our tomatoes was different than what they normally see, they tasted the same.”

The students were learning about and working in the garden also spilled over into the classroom with healthy meals made in the kitchen area.

“Also, the science area becomes a bug habitat where students learned how plants needed help from the destruction of certain bugs,” Ratliff shared. “In art, we used healthy food to paint with and learn about where other foods came from as well.”

On Thursday, September 21, they had their first science buddy visit. “These buddies were from seventh grade and we will be partnering with them all year for fun planting, STEM and other science-based activities!” Ratliff informed. “This activity will allow the older students the chance to gain leadership skills, confidence in working a bit outside of their comfort zone and will afford the opportunity to work with students who have challenges of varying degrees.”

The total costs for the garden project have reached $1,500 to date. “The Craig County Farm Bureau Women’s Committee is covering the costs beyond the $500 grant that we received,” Hunter said. “We plan to continue to work on the garden and add another larger raised bed.”

They also are in hopes to contact other organizations in the county and work with them to help improve the landscape in the courtyard.

“As we continue to build and improve the garden, it will allow teachers at the school to have more opportunities for using the garden as a means to enhance their lesson plans and provide hands-on experiences for the students,” Hunter added.

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