Whether it's a matter of Dade schools sowing the seeds of change or simply taking the community back to its roots, agriculture is growing like a weed in county education these days. Dade High is now cultivating a full-fledged agriscience program and has already reaped a full-time ag teacher, 22 raised beds and a greenhouse, with hopes of harvesting itself a barn before too long.
"But the middle school is kind of just hopping on that train now," said college junior Kate Moreau (torpedoing The Planet's botanical metaphor so hopelessly we might as well give up on it here and now). "As of right now, the middle school is kind of an afterthought in terms of the Farm-to-School Initiative."
Ms. Moreau, 20 (right), is trying to change all that. Her internship position at Dade Middle School this fall, which she took over from her dorm R.A. at Covenant College, is dedicated to bolstering the agricultural initiative among the younger students. "We're in charge of basically doing the nitty-gritty, raising money and getting supplies," said the education major. "It's a really new program."
The Farm-to-School Initiative is a coalition among teachers and administrators at the Dade high and middle schools, local 4-H and other interested agencies--Dade's new soil conservationist, Steve Bontekoe, has been very helpful--to bring agriculture back into the schools.
In Dade as in most of America, the school year once revolved around farm life. Summer vacation evolved from the recognition that kids were needed to help Pa and Ma in the fields during the height of the growing season. Society's race toward urbanization has left that behind, even in places like Dade where cows still graze in pastures visible from schoolyards. Farm-to-School hopes to correct that situation.
The basic Farm-to-School idea, explained Ms. Moreau, is to develop on-campus farms in Dade schools, which are particularly well situated to host them--not every school has enough land to make farming feasible, she pointed out. Besides: "Trenton has its roots in agriculture," said Ms. Moreau. "The hope is by bringing something sustainable like ag back into the community that more people could have healthy lives."
Thus one recent beautiful autumn day found Ms. Moreau showing The Planet over the handful of raised beds that her predecessor managed to get started behind Dade Middle Schohol last spring. "Our ultimate goal is to supplement the cafeteria food with what we're able to grow out here," she said.
With five small raised beds so far, still planted in last spring's tomatoes, feeding the student body from this garden would take some serious dividing of the loaves and the fishes, but this is just the beginning. Ms. Moreau hopes to build as many more raised beds as possible and keep expanding from there. "Mr. [DMS Principal Jamison] Griffin would really like to see chickens out here one day," said Ms. Moreau. "He's really passionate about this."
So is Ms. Moreau herself, who plans ultimately to become a lawyer involved in education policy for special-needs children. "Part of the Farm to School Initiative is giving kids with emotional and behavioral disorders a project that they can work on and they can be proud of where they can use their hands and get of the classroom," she said. "If they're able to get outside and work on a project they can see the fruits of, literally, going back into the classroom is a little bit easier after that."
The school's budget for F-to-S is so far small, and Ms. Moreau's function is to raise funds and materials--most of the cinderblocks used in the existing raised beds were brought in by DMS students' parents, for instance. But she's a city kid from Chicago and boasts no farm expertise. "I don't know enough about agriculture to keep a houseplant alive," she admits.
Luckily, she's got people for that. Joshua Boydston, the full-time high school ag teacher, teaches one class at DMS, 4-H raises a peace garden nearby and the middle school's Matt Jelley and his students have a couple of raised beds of their own. And walking inside, The Planet and Ms. Moreau found seventh-grade science teacher Fancher Nakhleh and Ken Poston, a DMS special education teacher and coach, busily installing an aquaponics tank they'd inherited from the high school to supply fertilizer for the raised beds out back.
"Apparently fish poop has got a lot of nitrogen, which is really good for plants," explained Ms. Moreau.
Ms. Nakhleh, said Ms. Moreau, is the horticultural powerhouse behind F-to-S at Dade Middle. She and her students were planting winter greens in the raised beds later that afternoon.
From left, students Devon Lawson and Nick Elrod, Coach Jeff Poston, science teacher Fancher Nakleh and intern Kate Moreau pose with DMS's new aquaponics tank. The purpose of aquaponics is, apparently, to produce fish poop which is, apparently, an excellent soil amendment for gardening.
"It's a great opportunity to tie the seventh-grade life-science standards into real-world use," said Ms. Nakhleh, wielding a rake. "One of my big rants is that we live in an agricultural community but most of the kids who go to the school don't actually own the cows or do a garden; it's all their grandparents. There's this disconnect going on between the cows in the field next door and the kids that are living here."
Hands-on farming, she said, could not only put students in touch with their food chain but with the generations that came before them.
As for supplementing cafeteria food with garden produce, Ms. Nakhleh thinks that will be a snap. Maybe the spinach will make and maybe it won't, but lettuce grows quickly from plugs, and: "If we had timed it right, we could have put cherry tomatoes on the salad bar this year," she said.
And as for the ironic desertion of a school farm's workforce come summer--in the old days they left school to help out on the home farm, now they leave the school farm to go home--that doesn't worry Ms. Nakhleh much, either. "We have an aftercare program that runs through June and then we start back in August, so there's really only six weeks there," she said.
Last year, she had the bright idea of getting a church group to take over the beds in the summer, but found no takers. Still, optimism is a necessary attribute for farmers, so: Maybe this year.
Would you like to help Moreau, Nakhleh, Poston and crew further Farm to School at Dade Middle? Long-term goals for the program, beside Mr. Griffin's chickens, include a hoophouse for growing plants and some sort of structure--gazebo? picnic shelter?--that can be used for an outdoor classroom. Short term goals are raised beds, raised beds, raised beds.
If you can contribute anything toward any of those ends--blocks, soil, building materials, labor in the summertime--please contact Ms. Moreau at email@example.com, or call the school at (706) 657-6491.
The project is also gratefully accepting donations at its Go Fund Me site, https://www.gofundme.com/2ra52mk.