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School farm idea takes root

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — Educators have laid the groundwork for a multi-disciplinary outdoor laboratory called the Carroll County Public Schools Farm.

The research farm will share the 90 or so acres with Hillsville Elementary School.

The school takes up approximately 30 acres, but the rest of the property will be farmed out to enhance agricultural and science programs in the public schools, said Carroll High agriculture teacher Randy Webb and Mark Burnette, director of secondary education.

The farm is essentially a “land lab” that will open up possibilities for projects in every single field of study in agriculture — resource management, horticulture, landscaping, forestry, agricultural products, biological applications and veterinary science, the educators say. Test plots and demonstration crops there will be designed to assist farmers in the community, as well.

A high-impact project is the planned trial of canola seeds, the highest yielding natural oil source, Webb said. The grain is a winter cover crop that won’t interfere with a farmer’s summer crops.

Even better, growing canola will benefit the soil, as it will add nitrogen as it grows, thus cutting down on the farmer’s need to add the substance through fertilizer.

Canola is food-grade oil that requires less processing, Webb said. Once crushed, it’s “ready to go in the deep fryer.”

Another positive for canola: it’s a low-maintenance crop that can be used as a highly nutritious forage for livestock.

“It’s a very good source of income for our farmers,” Webb said. “We’re doing an acre test plot with that.”

At the farm, they’ll use the same field where a pumpkin plot already exists.

Each project seems to lead into other opportunities, Burnette noted. “It’s a test facility, so many things can grow or branch off from it.”

For example, a student could research whether there’s a difference in cattle fed canola, as compared to livestock that get other kinds of feed.

And, in this time of high fuel costs, anything that naturally produces oil gets people thinking about biodiesel.

“We’ve got a science teacher in here that’s really interested in that,” Burnette said.

Getting ag students out there on projects will give them work experience and leadership opportunities, teach them to carry out responsibilities and pursue research, and prepare them for life after school, Webb expected. He’s excited about the possibilities for the students, as they won’t have to wait until college to dig into research.

The students’ agricultural projects are meant to help the community. Burnette and Webb could see, for example, how cattle vaccinations administered by vet sciences students for a farmer’s livestock would benefit both sides.

“This whole farm project, it’s going to be a community resource,” Burnette said.

Webb wants to hold farming seminars there. He knows that a student of his and the boy’s father recently had to go out of town to take a course and get certified in beef quality assurance. The teacher would rather see those kinds of programs take place on the research farm instead.

With fewer farms and fewer students exposed to agriculture, the educators see the farm as their chance to introduce such things to a new generation.

Facilitating the involvement of elementary school students, the educators have in mind a mobile career and science lab set up in a school bus, Burnette said.

The bus would visit the elementaries to give students a chance to do things like water and soil testing, he said. That program would culminate in a trip to the school farm.

“I can’t wait to get these elementary students over there and get something started with them,” he said.

The research farm has been in the works for a while now, but the educators say it’s about ready to reach critical mass.

In fact, it began when the current county administrator, Gary Larrowe, acted as the school system’s educational development specialist.

Besides the pumpkins, there’s an area designated for cattle grazing that has a partial fence and awaits a watering system to keep the animals out of the stream.

Keeping the stream pristine will allow students to do studies in an unspoiled habitat, cut down on erosion and preserve the waterway, the educators said.

Stream mitigation is an area of research that the teachers are planning. Dr. Joe Gardner, a member of the family that the land was named after, has already started stream mitigation there.

Hopefully, the farm will receive funds from the Virginia Department of Transportation to create walking trails and install fencing, Burnette said. The trail could be used for elementary school science classes, like biology.

Making the farm self-sufficient will be a big goal, and the educators see it as a great place for craft shows with apple butter making, a corn maze and fundraisers.

Partnering agencies and individuals include Carroll County Extension Service and Webb Flowers; Wax Seed; Virginia State University for canola seeds and research assistance; Virginia Tech, Williamsburg Environmental and Gardner for the streambank mitigation; Dr. Mark Strauss and Carroll Vet Clinic; Virginia Agriculture Council and Farm Bureau.

The great thing about having an agricultural program in the traditional farming community of Carroll is that there’s support to further diversify an already strong educational program, Webb said.

He pointed to the brand-new aquaculture program at the high school, which uses waste from tilapia fish grown in a tank to fertilize tomatoes and other vegetables.

Though the school probably got $5,000 worth of equipment, educators only had to spend less than a third of that because different community members assisted with its startup, Webb noted.

Crop trials are ongoing, and the ag teacher hopes to have the cattle onsite by spring. Teachers will develop the “Big Green Bus” projects and curriculum over the next year, while building trades and auto mechanics classes retrofit the bus.

“I’m really pleased where the program’s going,” Webb said.