By TIM THORNBERRY
BOONEVILLE, Ky. — FFA students are known for their hard work and dedication to agriculture, but in one small eastern Kentucky county, members are providing much more than a little sweat-equity for their community.
The Owsley County High School (OCHS) FFA is involved in a garden project that is providing a more readily available supply of fresh, nutritious food to the school and community.
The project is centered on the idea the chapter can grow enough fresh local produce in season to supply their small rural school district, while helping community members and students obtain inputs needed to grow another garden plot for their own fresh produce to consume or sell, according to Dustin Estridge, the school’s FFA advisor.
He pointed out it has truly been the work of the students and community members that have made the new project a success already. In its first growing season, the FFA garden produced approximately 4,000 pounds of student-planted produce, including beans, zucchini, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, green peppers, watermelons and cantaloupe.
“When your hands get dirty, you know it’s going to be worth it” said Roxzann Bennet,” an OCHS FFA member.
Most of what the members have produced has gone to the local school system’s cafeterias, which in turn served more fruits and vegetables this year because of the lower cost associated with the short distance from the garden. The garden plots are literally right around the corner, located on school grounds.
Chef Jim Whaley, a consultant for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA) Farm to School Program, said in an interview with the school newspaper the partnership between the school the ag program has created tremendous results.
“The collaboration between the high school agriculture program and the foodservice director has resulted in the largest quantity of garden-fresh, wholesome food I have ever observed served to students in any school cafeteria that I have visited,” he said.
In addition to the FFA garden is an adjacent community garden that allowed 15 community members to grow their own food this past season. Each community gardener was supplied with seed, fertilizer, stakes, string and manual equipment, said Estridge.
Community gardeners also had the opportunity to sell their fresh produce in the county’s farmers’ market, located approximately 200 feet from the garden area on the high school campus. This has allowed agriculture students to be exposed to growing, harvesting, marketing and selling a product in a market within their community. Local farmers have also mentored students in their garden projects.
“The adult members of the farmers’ market have really helped me sell my produce” said Travis Lewis, OCHS FFA president.
Another hope of those tending the garden, because of their involvement in the production of the food, is to change the attitude many of the teens have about fresh vegetables.
“Veggies taste so much better when you grow them yourself’, said Annie Bennett, an FFA member. The students are also using the school garden to learn agricultural, scientific and mathematical concepts through applied project-based learning activities, said Estridge.
The key to the success of the program lies within the involvement of community partners, which include the Owsley County School Foodservice, Farmers State Bank, Owsley County Cooperative Extension Service, Owsley County Soil Conservation, PRIDE, Kentucky Farm Bureau, Grow Appalachia, KDA, Berea College, Homegrown Kentucky, the University of Kentucky, the Kentucky FFA Assoc. and the National FFA Organization.
“Anything can happen when enough people want change and are willing to help turn ideas into reality. I am so proud of my FFA chapter, school and my small community,” said Kennedi Little, OCHS FFA secretary.
FFA member Terri Smith summed up the effort: “No one truly realizes the importance of food until they have grown it.”