Turning weeds into a vegetable garden

The Crook County High School FFA donates some of its product to food banks


RON HALVORSON - Members of the Crook County High School FFA pose for a group photo at their garden. Pictured left to right are Shelby Squier, Bradley Beardsley, Carlos Vaca, Emma Freeman, Clayton Wells, Jose Villagomez, Katelynn Self, Joel Hoff (faculty), Sean Meyer and Chris Shollenburg.

For years, customers purchasing flower and vegetable starts from Crook County High School’s FFA program were welcomed by a large, healthy patch of weeds next to the main greenhouse.

No more. Thanks to the enthusiasm and vision of one of the school’s administrators, an ensuing Community Benefit grant of $4,999 from the St. Charles Health System, and lots of sweat from 15 incoming freshmen, the eyesore has been transformed into a large and productive vegetable garden.

“Pretty much St. Charles came up and said, ‘Hey, we want to improve overall community health, like, do you guys have any ideas?’” related Joel Hoff, an assistant principal and the project’s coordinator. “So we decided we’d work with some kids, and build some raised beds, and grow some vegetables. I figured it’d be a cool way to get kids outside, working, pick up some basic skills that will help them lead a more healthy lifestyle in the future, and help our community.”

The conversion of weeds to vegetables hasn’t been easy, said Hoff. Because the project didn’t get off the ground until mid-June – and because they’ve been meeting only three days a week for an hour a day since – they had to work fast.

By July, about half of the eventual 25 or so raised beds were built with donated lumber, filled with soil (a mix of fill dirt from the new elementary school delivered by city crews, donated topsoil, and purchased garden soil), and planted – all by the students. Bark chips donated by the Crook County Landfill will be spread around the site before school starts, if all goes as planned.

For the first planting, some vegetables were seeded and others planted as starts purchased from FFA. But with the end of the growing season looming while the last beds were built only a couple of weeks ago, starts became the only late-season option.

“Anything left over (in the FFA greenhouse),” is what was planted last week, said Hoff.

The budding gardeners were chosen last spring, based on suggestions from the middle school principal. They had a meeting and Hoff gave them a general idea of what was expected.

“I was actually kind of nervous that no one would show up,” he admitted. “Teenagers aren’t interested in gardening these days. But it’s been cool because I was expecting about five kids, and we’ve had 15 pretty consistent every day. They actually are enjoying it. It’s exceeded my expectations.”

The students will receive an elective credit for their effort, he said, which will allow them to start high school “ahead of the game.”

The reasons for participation and expected benefits are as varied as the students themselves.

“I thought it would be a great chance to help out,” explained Emma Freeman, 15, between giggles, although it wasn’t what the first-time gardener expected.

“I thought mine would die instantly on the first day.”

They didn’t, and she said she’s enjoyed picking tomatoes and checking on her other vegetables as they mature.

Bradley Beardsley, 14, wasn’t shy as he proudly pointed out the vigorous plants in his plot.

“Tomatoes, peppers, purple cabbage, squash, onion, corn. I wanted something fast enough so I could take it home early, and some of them take longer, so when school starts I can come over here and grab some fresh stuff. As you can see, there’s lots of zucchini coming in.”

Beardsley said he’s taken food home to make fresh salads and zucchini bread, but there’s a problem, he confessed.

“My mom and dad said, if I grow something, I at least have to try it. And I hate everything I grow right now. I can’t stand it, but I might like it if it’s not fresh.”

Gardening is old hat for some. Shelby Squier, also 14, said she’s had gardens before and that she really likes it, especially the planting and watering parts. She chose the class, she said, because she likes the work, “plus you get a grade out of it, and I have nothing better to do.”

“I actually live on a farm, and I like to learn new stuff, so if I learn this, I can plant some stuff on the farm,” was 14-year-old Katie Self’s reason for participating. She said she’s enjoyed learning new things, and she’s about ready to harvest her first bell pepper.

She also thinks the class is valuable for another reason.

“Everybody should know this because mostly the stuff that we eat is actually grown. It takes time for it to grow and they need to know that.”

Hoff said that while the project’s “real bang for the buck” is having the kids apply what they’ve learned to the rest of their life, there are also more immediate benefits.

“It’s a cool way for them to get their feet wet in high school, and to know we’re excited to have them, and have a place that they built, so to get a little ownership as they come into school.” Also, Aug. 12 marked the first day that a portion of the harvest was gathered to give to the local food bank, a practice expected to continue well into the fall.

Now with the raised beds in place, Hoff is already looking toward the future.

“Next year we’ll be able to plant everything from day one,” he said. And, he’s looking for ways to expand the program, such as providing fresh food for the school’s cafeteria, or partnering with the culinary arts program. He also has eyes on more weedy areas where the garden could be enlarged.

“There’s a lot of room for growth. It’ll be fun to see what happens in the future.”

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