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Charlotte Amalie
Sunday, February 5, 2023
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UVI, Teachers Guide Students to Garden for Security

Most of the food is imported in the Virgin Islands, up to 99 percent, according to Carlos Robles of the University of the Virgin Islands Extension Service, and as world economies plummet and oil sources become scarce, he says food security should be a primary concern.

On an island of 50,000 people with an aging farming population of about 200 licensed farmers, getting the youth engaged and interested in agriculture is a huge step toward sustainably increasing the output of food in the territory.

Schools across the island are providing agricultural education as members of U VI’s Extension Program make classroom visits and lead tours of the university’s own gardens. Local teachers have also been helping the students create gardens in their schools.

According to Albion Chico George, who’s from the extension program and also makes classroom visits and tours, a question he often asks is, “Who is the richest or the most important person in the world?” George says he gets many answers from the youngsters – ranging from “my father” to “the president” – but his answer to them is always, “The farmer. Because we all have to eat.”

Schools that have begun introducing young people to agriculture include Gladys Abraham Elementary, Ulla Muller Elementary, and Antilles School, and we’ll see how outlined below. The UVI Extension Service is advancing the integration of agriculture into youth culture in other ways as well, which we’ll visit in the second part of this two-part series on agriculture.

GLADYS ABRAHAM
As the final bell rings on a weekday afternoon, health teacher Vincent Henley walks down the bustling hallway in Gladys Abraham Elementary School towards the garden where a wide variety of crops are grown in a relatively small space. A row of spiny pineapple plants grows along the border of the area where peppers are being grown, in an example of innovative, natural pest management, to keep the iguanas from reaping one of the best-selling crops that the students have sown.

The peppers, along with potted plants, tend to be the school’s gardening club’s top-dollar items at the Carnival Food Fair, an event for which they have already started preparing, says Henley. By this time of year, students will be at school every Saturday in preparation for the fair, having a grill out and tending their crops.

In past years the school’s garden has won prizes at the Food Fair, and they usually bring in about $1,500 in sales.

Agriculture “should be a part of the curriculum,” says Henley, but it is not. He stresses to students that there are many aspects of agriculture to get involved in other than“getting your hands dirty.”

“It’s not only about planting things.”

The garden at Gladys Abraham is often used as an outdoor classroom where the practical application of many different subjects intersect. Entrepreneurial skills are learned through the selling of crops and products and through money management. Math classes have gone into the garden to measure the dimensions for raised planting beds, and science experiments are regularly conducted in the garden concerning whether a plant grows better under certain conditions or not.

One recent experiment involved students comparing the growth of plants that used WAPA water with those which were watered with rainwater.

Ultimately the garden is an exercise in balancing self-suffiency and community building. Henley says he was initially amazed at the turnout during the club’s first meeting. There is a membership of about 50 in a school of about 250 students.

There is a time sheet in Henley’s classroom that delegates tasks to the many different members at different times so that everything runs smoothly.

He tries to get his students on field trips off-campus as much as possible and has taken them to tour a farm out at the Bordeaux Farmer’s Market. He says he hopes to take them to the Agricultural Fair on St. Croix as well. He would like to have exchanges with schools such as Ulla Muller, Antilles, and Cancryn to see what they are doing with their gardens, and also help schools that would like to start a garden of their own for the first time.

“Kids get so excited watching their plants grow. A kid who might have never eaten a tomato that didn’t come from a grocery store will pick a tomato ripe from the vine and eat it raw right there, because they’re so excited that they grew it.”

ULLA MULLER

“There is a season for everything,” says Ulla Muller’s school nurse Kathleen Taylor as she reads from a farmers almanac to a group of eager garden club members.

A pot of homegrown passion fruit boils on the stove in the background. The Ulla Muller garden has been up and running for two years now, led by Taylor and science teacher Jessica Jean-Baptiste.

The UVI Extension Service helped with the initial setup, and a Community Foundation Institution of the Virgin Islands grant from Alpine Security helped the garden to expand to include a fence surrounding tires and raised planting beds filled with eggplant, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, basil, mint, pineapples, passion fruit, okra, spinach.

“And snow peas!” several voices excitedly volunteer as Taylor pauses for a moment to recall everything that has been planted.

The garden club at Ulla Muller has 20 regular members (plus a waiting list) who cultivate and eat the foods from the garden, and who occasionally provide the entire school with salads and passion fruit juice at lunch or bush tea with breakfast. The aim of their garden is primarily nutritional.

During Nutrition Month kids prepare different dishes involving food from the garden and gather information about fresh food, testing taste and nutrition of freshly grown food compared to industrial grown and processed food.

The garden has also grown to have other aims and benefits, says Jean-Baptiste, adding that she wants the kids to learn to be self-sufficient, “especially in the state of this economy.”

By further incorporating agricultural education into school systems, she says more children will gain knowledge on food economics, and also to eat food that tastes better and is better for them. Plus “the kids love it.”

ANTILLES SCHOOL

Antilles School Dean of Students Adam Quandt started a rain garden in 2009 with the help of community service teacher Joan Amerling and a grant from the V.I. Waste Management Authority.

The schools rain garden consists of all native trees and bushes and is built on a hillside. Its role is to channel run-off, allowing sediment to settle, thus reducing the amount of pollution that reaches the coral reefs.

Quandt, who also teaches ninth-grade Earth Science, says students learn about erosion control and the interaction between the land and the sea.

“It has to start in the schools,” he said.

Not only will teaching agriculture to kids raise a generation who knows how to plant food again, Quandt says it has immediate effects as kids bring home what they’ve learned to their parents.

Paul Pagoda, teacher of sixth-grade science to at Antilles, has started a small permaculture, a garden and system of agriculture that aims to provide the biggest benefit to humans with the least amount of environmental damage.

In order to create a permaculture garden, Pagoda explains, one must observe nature and try to mimic the successful growing patterns that occur there.

And since biodiversity is a desirable trait in nature and the edges of forests tend to be the most diverse areas, Pagoda says, he increases the amount of edge by growing crops (banana trees and lemon grass) in a circle. He hopes to expand the circles to include sweet potatoes and other vegetables.

In the center of this system is a heap of compost, which he says is central to the garden’s program as well as to the garden itself.

There are compost buckets in the teachers’ lounge and in the lunch areas of the students. At the end of each day a student volunteer takes the food scraps and dumps them into the compost pile.

Pagoda says poor soil is one of the major challenges that farmers faces on in the islands, and that 40 percent of what is in the Bovoni landfill is green waste that could have been composted into rich, fertile soil.

Pagoda stresses educating students on the differences between industrial agriculture and small-scale agriculture. “People have become disconnected with where their food and water comes from,” says Pagoda.

“Living on St. Thomas, this is even more critical because the question needs to be asked: ‘What would happen if the shipping schedule is interrupted?’”

The garden’s purposes are more than just practical. For Pagoda it’s about providing students with the opportunity to “be imaginative and enjoy being outdoors. It’s a fundamental part of what makes us human,” he says.

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