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Anti-urban sprawl courses look to ag for new insights
Tennessee Correspondent

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It’s only a matter of time before suburban sprawl and traffic creep into Cocke County – much of which is tucked into the mountains of Appalachia – and other small, rural counties across the United States.

That’s the idea behind new environmental curricula University of Tennessee Extension researchers are developing. Their Smart Growth for Healthy Kids pilot is Grassy Fork Elementary School in Hartford, Tenn., facing a narrow two-lane country road just a few miles off Interstate 40 near the border of North Carolina.

“In 10-15 years, she’s going to be making the decisions in this community,” said Martha Keel, referring to a seventh-grade student with whom she’d just talked about the school’s newest project, a small greenhouse.

Keel, professor of UT Family and Consumer Sciences in Knoxville, wrote the application for a $32,000 EPA grant on behalf of various educators and policymakers in Cocke County, home to the Grassy Fork school. Obtaining the grant is part of a larger initiative, the Children’s Environmental Health Partnership, made up of EPA, USDA, several southeastern-U.S. universities and a Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina.

This partnership began seven years ago, according to Keel, and deals with kids’ health issues. In this case, it’s preventing unplanned sprawl from residents leaving nearby cities.

“It’s critical to rural areas, because we’re just eating up our agricultural land,” she said, adding local residents want planned growth rather than selling patches of land to outside developers. “Cocke County does not want to grow the way other counties have grown.”

Sevier County is a good illustration. Abutting Cocke County to the southwest, its three largest towns - Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg - have exploded into an international tourist mecca of strip malls, outdoor amusement parks, outlet malls, music and dance shows and a major theme park - Dollywood. Traffic is often bumper-to-bumper through these cities, which was expansive farmland not long ago.

An economically poor area, Cocke County already has less agriculture than it did just a quarter-century ago. UT extension agent Kevin McConnell said more than half the county is forestland that supports sawmills and lumberyards, but farmers also produce beef cattle and hay. Twenty years ago, it was more of a vegetable-and-fruit county.

Grassy Fork used $3,500 of the grant for its new greenhouse, which McConnell and Seth Smith of Community House Cooperative (CHC) - a local nonprofit dedicated to social justice issues - assembled earlier this month.

It will use another $1,500 for on-site composting and a small weather station with basic instruments “where the kids can do some gathering and measuring” to try to predict immediate weather, McConnell explained.

All this creates a “real-life science class” Principal Shannon Grooms said fits in with the school’s mission to combine independent student learning and practicality.

“This is, in my opinion, a fantastic outdoor classroom,” McConnell said.

Keel and other researchers are banking on that to develop seventh- and eighth-grade curricula they hope will be implemented in other rural schools across the country. The concept of gardening at school isn’t new - it’s been used at inner-city districts to rehabilitate blighted property and to teach - but that it might be necessary at a country school probably runs counter to most people’s assumptions that all rural folk are agricultural experts.

Certainly Emily Hall isn’t. The Grassy Fork seventh-grader lives in nearby Del Rio, with a population of 1,300. Her grandparents, also Cocke County natives, tell her stories of growing up on farms and seeing fields as far as they could look, something not in her daily experience despite living in a small town.

“I hope it stays this way,” Hall said of her forested surrounds. “I don’t want to see it like Pigeon Forge.”

The curricula UT develops will be reviewed by academic peers and ag agencies for general application.

“We don’t want to water it down so it’s not usable,” Keel explained, “but we want to make sure all kinds of areas can use it.”

Rather than ordering a greenhouse for every school, Keel said the point is to make educators aware of curricula benefits and to help them brainstorm for their own districts by offering suggested activities.

“Teachers gobble up stuff like that,” she said.

And Grassy Fork is a prime Petri dish. Keel said since Grooms took over as principal almost six years ago, the school has gone from underperforming to being one of the highest-rated in the state; recent annual Department of Education Report Cards prove it.

Though Hartford isn’t wealthy, “I like to think of us as very rich in community, and very rich in support,” Grooms explained.

Keel also credited McConnell for his “visionary” efforts to institute cutting-edge biotechnology to try to give local foresters and farmers an economic advantage.

At heart, Smart Growth is a basic desire to see progeny make wise decisions - smarter than some of their elders’ planning.

“If we can get them to grow plants and not put up a condo on the family farm, we’re way ahead,” said Grassy Fork seventh- and eighth-grade teacher Pam Ball.

This farm news was published in the Nov. 29, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.