• Alaska Farm Bureau looks for ways to support natural resources education
By Hannah Heimbuch
Tyeler Day uncoiled a hose down the gritty path between the greenhouse garden boxes, shouting back to a classmate to crank the water on. The Homer High School sophomore surveyed the rows of arching squash leaves and carrot stems, focused on the day’s task for Francie Roberts’ Natural Resources class.
“I think it’s really cool how we’re learning hydroponic systems and how to grow plants inside,” Day said.
The garden boxes are just one part of the class, which includes composting, hydroponic and aeroponic gardening, rabbits, chickens and other agricultural projects. They are also building a goat shed now, and hope to bring in a goat by the end of the semester.
Senior Maggie Koplin took the class for a second semester, she said, because working with the plants and animals is a rare opportunity in school — and in the middle of winter, no less.
“Just to be out of the school atmosphere and dealing with things you don’t usually get to at school is nice,” Koplin said. “I’ve learned a lot.”
Roberts shared some of these projects recently with visiting Natural Resource Education Specialist Melissa Sikes, helping show Sikes how Homer teachers are incorporating natural resource knowledge into their teaching curriculum.
Sikes works for the Fairbanks Soil and Water Conservation District, and is tasked with dispersing funds donated by the Alaska Farm Bureau to support agricultural education around the state.
“They’ve given us a total of $15,000 to get the ball rolling,” Sikes said. “It’s up to us to find more funds to keep it going.”
It was very encouraging to see this kind of support developing, said Roberts, who has been teaching the school district’s only natural resources class for the last three years.
“I’m always looking for better ideas,” Roberts said. “I gave her my curriculum, and she’s going to look for more ideas to support me and the different topics we’re studying in this class; what the Farm Bureau could do and what she could do.”
Sikes stopped in seven schools in Homer during last month’s visit. In that time, she saw plenty of evidence of how area schools are already working with natural resource education. Many of the projects she heard about, like the living playground at Fireweed Academy, are the result of the $110,500 in People’s Garden grants distributed in 2011. Those funds seeded garden projects at schools, health service buildings and other community organizations around the southern peninsula.
“It was really neat to see how the students reacted to the People’s Gardens put into their schools,” Sikes said.
The kindergartners at Fireweed Academy were particularly proud of their carrots, she said, no matter that they’d all been pulled many months before. That’s how strong the students’ connections are to the garden, said teacher Kim Fine.
“What we have right now is about 10 or 12 raised beds, flowers, vegetables of all kinds, potatoes; just a great garden,” Fine said. “From a teacher point of view, the joy of all this is that it’s experiential education. If you’re immersed in plants and roots, you’re going to understand root systems and what they do, because you’re integrally involved in it.”
Those projects may be an off-season memory right now, but that should change soon. Thanks to a recent, parent-written grant from Wholefoods, said Fine, Fireweed will soon be putting up a greenhouse, allowing them to keep their green projects going through much more of the year.
Following Sikes’ visit, Fine said she is interested in learning how Fireweed might take their projects to the next level, perhaps by building a chicken coop or rabbit hutch. Right now, she said, it’s just encouraging to see a consistent dialogue opening that can support these long-term, hands-on educational experiences.
From potato math to snack time, a living playground can be incorporated into many aspects of the school experience, Fine said.
“It’s not just science. It’s writing, it’s art, it’s social studies, it’s history,” she said. “Why would you do it any other way? It makes it real, it makes it dynamic, it makes it alive.”
Roberts said that has also been true for her high school students; a group of diverse ages and interests that come together for this unique experience of caring for plants and animals.
“I think if you look at the movement toward local foods and local production of things, this kind of class is right on the money,” Roberts said. “The other thing I think this class is really good for is summer jobs and future jobs for all of my students. It’s exposure to a career field.”
A number of her natural resources students have gone on to work with peony farmers and greenhouses in recent years, she said.
In many ways, the development of garden projects at local schools has mirrored a general area trend; one that’s seen a boom of grant-funded high tunnels and increased availability of local food products.
“The farmer’s market has just ballooned because of the high tunnels,” said local peony grower and Kenai Peninsula Farm Bureau Chapter President Rita Jo Shoultz. “We’ve got good food coming from all these people being grown properly and locally. so Homer is really fortunate.”
This kind of education is vital, said Shoultz. She is working with Sikes and area schools to help foster a lasting tradition of agricultural eduction in Alaska.
“We’re very cognizant that the average farmer’s age right now is 57 to 60 years old,” Shoultz said. “And less than one percent of workers are in the farm industry, so we’re trying to get young folks interested in any way we can.”
Sikes echoed that concern, adding that even in a state like Alaska — not typically characterized as an agricultural state — farming and ranching are integral parts of our economy, food supply, culture and future stability.
“Farmers are aging out, and there’s not as many students who are interested in going into agriculture as a profession,” Sikes said. “It’s not as money-making as, say, being in technology. But there is a huge amount of technology involved in agriculture and agriculture sciences.”
Shoultz is hoping to continue to encourage a variety of interactions between youth and local farmers. That may include classroom visits by fiber artists who work with wool, or mentorships between individual youths and a local grower.
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