Down on the farm

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — Down on the Carroll schools farm, students, teachers and volunteers have set their shoulders to build a fence and donned boots to wade through the overgrown pasture.

The seeds for the farm planted, they work at various chores to make the place ready for more school and community activities.

Corn for the maze is about halfway grown on the hillside near Hillsville Elementary School on Floyd Pike. The farm shares the 96 or so acres on the campus of Carroll’s newest elementary school.

Agriculture students from the high school, several ag teachers and various volunteers continue to install a six-foot-tall, deer-proof fence to protect the 18 varieties of pumpkin growing in farm trials.

The pumpkins and the fence are in the flat bottom and will show up well from U.S. 221.

Administrators Mark Burnette and Bob Martin ride a tractor to go over the route of a walking trail that they hope to get recreational funds for, and they bush hog it while scoping out the best way.

They take the blue tractor up a fairly steep grade of a hill beyond a small creek and through maturing woods that cover about a third of the school property.

At the top, there’s several acres of what used to be a clearing but much of it has grown up in briars without the cattle.

The history of this land includes agricultural practices. It belonged to the Gardner family and it’s named after Inez Gardner Hicks.

More farm activities will ramp up as fall and the new school year approaches.

Educators have described the farm as essentially a “land lab” that will open up possibilities for projects in every field of study in agriculture — natural resources, horticulture, forestry, biological applications and veterinary science. Test plots and demonstration crops will be designed to assist farmers in the community, as well.

Having recently learned about availability of a recreational trail grant for up to $100,000, Martin and Burnette hope to entice the public to visit the farm, too.

To gather information necessary for the grant application, they spent a sunny but comfortable afternoon Tuesday getting the lay of the land.

There’s tremendous potential for teaching or just enjoying the outdoors on this land, Martin said.

He indicates a hearth and a chimney still standing, which he says is a remnant of a former homeplace of George L. Carter, the coal and railroad magnate from the 1900s. The educators are considering calling the place the George L. Carter Educational Park and Recreational Trail.

The trail would follow the creek and fencerows before climbing the hill to the high pasture and looping back around with the trailhead beside the school ball fields.

“The way we can wrap it around everything, we’re probably looking at two miles,” Burnette estimated.

If they get the grant and the trail becomes a reality, planners might have to develop switchbacks to make it easier to hike up the hill.

If the schools get the trail grant, they will have three years to use it to build that recreational feature.

Burnette foresees being able to build observation decks for wildlife watching, taking water samples to test from the creek, continuing stream mitigation efforts, grazing cattle, finding erosion controls and managing timber on the property.

Companies, the community and colleges have all gotten behind the Carroll school farm effort, Burnette said. “It’s all about the partnerships.”

Lewis Sapp of Stay Tuff Fence guided the 11th graders through steps of installing the heavy-duty predator-control fence, as Burnette and Martin mapped out the possible path.

Sapp’s labor and fencing materials are being donated, Burnette noted. Galax Farm Supply sold posts for the project at cost. Billy White from Cloverdale Farm Supply in Danville helped drive the posts.

All the contributions on the fences help the project along, ag teacher Randy Webb noted. He estimated the fields needed about 4,000 to 5,000 feet of enclosures.

Southern States supplied corn seed and spraying equipment, Webb added. Carroll Veterinary Clinic donated a cattle working facility.

Miraco donated a watering system after the school system bought one for the farm.

Extension Agent Webb Flowers used his contacts to secure donations of seeds from Wax Seed.

Virginia Tech donated tomato plants. Blue Ridge Farm Supply donated tilapia.

The Virginia Ag Council has supplied startup money for the farm.

Williamsburg Environmental and the Virginia Department of Transportation are cooperating on the school farm’s vegetative stream buffer and stream bank mitigation — a big project, Burnette said. The department of transportation can offset for some of the bog turtle habitat it took in building the U.S. 58 bypass.

“It’s like a big community outreach project,” Webb said.

The farm ties in well with the Big Green Bus mobile science and career lab, which should pull out of the garage in time for spring classes. It will feature demonstrations of soil and water testing and more.

The corn maze ought to open in the fall, and Webb anticipates inviting the public to community events there.

Educators will use the bus and farm to show real-world examples to illustrate what students learn from their textbooks. Burnette said this is a great opportunity to ride the growing wave of environmental consciousness that many young people fee.

“This is something we really look forward to capturing some childrens’ minds with,” he said.