The Clarke County Farm Bureau is launching a collaborative effort with Clarke County Public Schools to deliver a “makeover” in public awareness to local agriculture interests. At a planning meeting kick-off Tuesday night, educators, farmers and agriculture officials met to sow the seeds that they hope will reinvigorate agriculture education through hands-on learning opportunities while also improving agriculture’s profile with the general public.
The agriculture initiative has been spurred by the Clarke County School Board’s positive reception to a Farm Bureau proposal to develop an outdoor agriculture learning environment for students and community members. The Farm Bureau has been given a green light to turn approximately 13-acres of land near the current high school into a “hands-on” agriculture laboratory that will showcase the role of farming in the community while also providing experiential learning opportunities.
Last night’s meeting, attended by three Clarke County High School instructors, four local farmers and two agricultural support representatives wrestled with the vision for how best to deliver support and resources that will benefit CCPS’s agriculture program.
“The Farm Bureau understands that it needs to do a better job marketing agriculture” said Virginia Farm Bureau Federation liaison Philip Shenk. “’Ag’ is not a dirty word.”
Clay Brumback, President of the Clarke County Farm Bureau concurred with Shenk’s assessment and said that the goal is to raise awareness of the importance and viability of the farm economy in Clarke County. “We want to educate both students and the public that agriculture includes so much more than people realize.”
Part of the challenge is that much of the current population, even in a rural community like Clarke County, has little direct understanding of farming techniques or agriculture. Betsy Novak, horticulture instructor at Clarke County High School, attributed the separation of “agriculture” and “horticulture” in the CCPS curriculum as one reason that non-traditional agriculture students have enrolled in her classes.
“I know that there is some disagreement on this but are we trying to make everyone farmers or trying to raise agriculture awareness?” Novak asked. “We have lots of elementary school students who will never be farmers but love to work outside in the school gardens. They’re so excited when they pick something that they’ve actually grown.”
Novak suggested that keeping “horticulture” and “agriculture” as separate topics was important in reaching a wider audience of people like gardeners and florists not associated with crop or animal production.
Last night’s discussion considered a wide range of possible ideas and models for lending support to CCPS’s agriculture program.
Betsy Novak emphasized that gardens, like the plot near Cooley Elementary, offered excellent outdoor classroom opportunities for non-traditional agriculture students.
Chris Bates, a Clarke County farmer who raises Morgan horses and Angus cattle, said that he hoped adult classes will be offered to the community through the school’s agriculture program. “We need a real community learning center that everyone can benefit from.” Bates said that classes on subjects like welding and beekeeping could benefit both agriculture students as well as adults.
The committee hopes to visit Rappahannock County to learn more about its “Farm to Table” program as well as a community farm program in Fauquier County.
Meeting chairman Corey Childs, a livestock and feed grass farmer at North End Farm, emphasized the importance of being responsive to the School Board’s positive reception to the concept of Farm Bureau support for the agriculture program.
“The key is to get something going” Childs said.
The committee also discussed a looming question that may threaten to preempt much of the potential progress currently envisioned.
“If you leave the agriculture program where it currently is then you’re going to kill the agriculture program at Clarke County Public Schools” agriculture instructor Glen Cole told the group.
Cole expressed concern that once the new high school is constructed, busing students between the new facility and agriculture program facilities located at the existing high school will consume too much student time and cripple the program.
“Kids need to be able to easily get from classrooms to the agriculture department when they have extra time or they have a free class block” Cole said. “Otherwise it just becomes out of sight, out of mind.”
Corey Childs said that he believed that several options for locating the agriculture program including keeping it at its current site at the existing high school, moving the program to land at the new high school site or a combination of multiple small land plots at various school sites.
With the recent realization that $7.2M of funding earmarked for education will not be needed for school construction, recent school board discussions have considered using a portion of the money to ensure that all student activities can stay at the central campus during the school day. Reconsideration of a previously excluded school greenhouse has also been raised. Final resolution by the School Board on these issues remains outstanding.
Given that nearly $3.7M of the school building surplus is under direct control of the Clarke County Board of Supervisors it is conceivable that some of the money may be allocated to implement the Farm Bureau’s agricultural education vision and eliminate cross-campus challenges. If so, the move would demonstrate the county’s continued commitment to both agriculture and education in a single financial stroke.
“It’s all about politics and money” Clay Brumbach said at the end of the meeting.