Tulare County schools beautify school gardens, raise chickens in space

Teachers Amy Dennis and Kim Needham from Elbow Creek Elementary School and Julie Cates from Linwood Elementary School receive ag literacy grant to promote outdoor learning and activities

TULARE COUNTY – Two teachers have committed to renovating an old school garden with their students, while another teacher is taking her students on an astronomical journey to learn how to grow livestock in outer space.

Three teachers in Tulare County were awarded with a $500 Literacy for Life grant from nonprofit California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom (CFAC) this year to use for their classrooms. The grant funding is geared toward promoting agriculture literacy in the classroom through school gardens and other outdoor classroom activities, and is sponsored by the Oreggia Family Foundation.

“It’s a win-win for both agriculture and the teachers,” Executive director Judy Culbertson said. “Kids love getting their hands dirty. They need to be exposed to the variety of commodities that we grow in California.”

Teachers Amy Dennis and Kim Needham from Elbow Creek Elementary School will receive the grant and will renovate the remains of a previous school garden, which they named “Growing on Strong Ground.” Dennis told CFAC that weeds and gophers had taken over the plot of land where a garden once stood. Julie Cates from Linwood Elementary School will be using her grant money to teach students what it would be like to grow poultry on another planet.

“The majority of our student population sees agriculture in some form every day, but many have never truly experienced it,” Dennis said in a statement. “This grant will help us get our school garden up and running again; giving the students experience in the life they are currently submerged in yet whom many have not experienced.”

Needham said that 75 first graders and three teachers attempted to renovate the school garden last year. Six and seven year olds were equipped with shovels, rakes and hoes, and they helped “bring life” to the once abandoned garden. Vegetables and flowers were planted, but gophers feasted on the school’s newly planted crops soon after. 

“This year we have decided to remove all the soil, lay chicken wire, and then add nutritious soil back into the 9-10’x3′ beds,” Needham said in a statement. “Students will learn how to mix garden soil so we can have better control of its contents. We also know that water is a big issue in agriculture, and we want our students to be aware of this problem.”

Though Dennis teaches first grade, she said that every grade level within the school is welcome to visit the garden and learn about plant and life science through hands-on experience. 

Cates, from Linwood Elementary, titled her project “Linwood Eagles-Space Farmers.” This project will have students design a poultry harvesting operation “on Mars,” according to Cates. Students will study the water cycle, requirements for plant growth, the life cycles of chickens, cell development, meat production and “the limitations of agriculture on earth and in space,” Cates stated. This project is a continuation, as it was originally started last year.

“We are adding an aquaponic component, as last year’s students investigated protein supplements for chickens, inquiring about growing them alongside the plants needed to sustain poultry,” Cates said in a statement. “This project educates students about the complexities involved in agriculture and ignites their curiosity and problem solving abilities sustaining agriculture in space, which undoubtedly will occur in their lifetimes.”

Cates said that she also registered for a Citizen Science Project with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Fairchild Botanical. This project would replicate a space station’s vegetable growing system. This project will be geared toward first graders and sixth graders.

“Exploring why crops grow successfully where they do, especially California’s 400 specialty crops, promotes inquiry, sustainability methodology, and the Interstellar aspect has Universal possibilities,” Cates stated.

Culbertson said that there are only 25 different schools that receive the grant every year, and is available to certified K-12 teachers throughout the state. The receiving schools must submit a project proposal and an itemized budget, send in updates on the project and also complete the project within a year. 

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