SYRACUSE — Joe Gould started gardening because his grandmothers did, and when it won him a blue ribbon in his first county fair, he was hooked.
Ten years into running an agricultural program at Syracuse Christian Academy, he assures he’s not the only one. As the green-thumb wielding principal of the small, religious private school on the edge of town, Gould, along with his staff and volunteering parents, have passed on a love of cultivating and sharing fresh food to dozens of students who have passed through the academy’s doors in recent years.
"We want them to understand what we're doing, what some of our successes and failures are. Just encourage them to explore, to try new things and be creative," Gould said.
In 2008, in hopes of creating a local community food resource and offering students an outlet to learn practical skills, the school’s board approved a plan to plant 100 apple trees behind the school. Two years later, they added 100 peach treats, and then later plums and pears.
Today, the school’s backyard is home to an orchard, garden, greenhouse, chicken coop, beekeeping station and walk-in cooler, all of which aid in the student-aided production of fruits, vegetables, eggs and honey.
Gould said he and his wife do the bulk of the work leading into the school year, but one hour a week, plus volunteer weekend shifts to tend to chickens, students pick, prune and plant apples, peaches, pears, plums, squash, pumpkins, watermelons, beets, carrots, onions, cucumbers, potatoes, rosemary, chives and kale, among other plants. They also feed and gather eggs from the chickens.
The school’s class consists of about 20 students from preschool through high school, Gould said, and everyone kindergarten and up is given age-appropriate responsibilities. Some years, if there are enough older students and interest, he said, he holds a horticulture class that meets more regularly. Besides growing and maintaining plants, the students are taught how to cook with the food, how to preserve it and how to sell it.
A dinner for school donors is made chiefly from what is grown in gardens feet from the school. In the school’s science lab, students wash and box eggs they gathered themselves.
The school provides healthy, home-grown food to locals with financial needs, and sells 10 to 12 dozen eggs a week to Syracuse’s Country Cafe, Gould said. But students also get to interact firsthand with distribution, frequently selling fruits and vegetables at a local farmer’s market.
“A number of them love going to the farmer's market and helping to sell stuff. Some of them are pretty good salesmen,” Gould said.
The program teaches kids responsibility, work ethic and entrepreneurship, Gould said, and brings them face to face with the industry that fuels their hometown and region.
It’s an effort built on constant teamwork and innovation, fueled by the school’s students, staff and families. Gould said one of the school’s older students, David Smedley, took on a project that wrapped a ring of duct tape around the academy’s hundreds of fruit trees to keep parasitic insects away from the fruit.
Parents and families recently helped double the greenhouse to expand the potential plant rotation, Gould said.
Darrin Dewitt, father of one of the academy’s students, said he and his wife and son often help out at the school, like many parents turning the chores into a family affair. The students are excited about the work, he said, sometimes even fighting over who gets chicken duty. His son has always been invested.
“Our son loves to go help at the farmers market, just because he gets to meet a bunch of different people. It gets him out of that comfort zone,” Dewitt said.
To Dewitt, the work clearly goes beyond practical skills. He said students learn what different plants look like and what it takes for them to grow, what nutrients are most efficient, how to grade eggs, how to identify funguses on trees or the stages of the growth of a peach.
On some occasions, the students have opportunities to share and spread what they’ve learned. Students often give tours of the agricultural land to visitors, Gould said, eagerly showing off their knowledge and breaking down aspects of the program. And they either attend or help lead a free agriculture camp the school runs for community children, introducing other local students to information and process they may know little to nothing about.
“I think it gives them a sense of pride. And when we have visitors here, they love showing them what we're doing … Adults say ‘Boy, your kids are such tour guides.’ You have to take some interest too in order to know enough to explain what’s going on out here. They enjoy doing that,” Gould said.
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