Students get experience in traditional farming
By MICHAEL SLUSS
The Roanoke Times
FLOYD, Va. (AP) — Reuben Slusher may have gone to bed with sore shoulders after spending part of his afternoon filling buckets with rocks he scooped from freshly tilled ground on a Floyd County farm.
In time, the ninth-grader also will have the satisfaction of helping to produce the vegetables that he and his classmates consume in the Floyd County High School cafeteria.
Reuben was just one of the Floyd agriculture students who turned out Nov. 2 for the groundbreaking of a school farm about four miles south of the town of Floyd. The project pays homage to the county’s rich agricultural history, and will provide future farmers and gardeners with valuable, hands-on experience they can’t get in a classroom.
Two teams of draft horses pulled plows that churned up about a quarter-acre of land where students will plant potatoes in the spring. Reuben said he appreciated the old-school approach to tilling the soil, because his own family’s farming roots date to the early 1800s.
“Learning about what my ancestors did, it’s really interesting to me,” he said. “It’s all about tradition.”
The draft horses were made available by Ryland Moore of Carroll County and Floyd County logger Jason Rutledge, who has become a local celebrity after appearing on the History Channel program “Ax Men.”
The school farm project is designed to get agriculture students actively involved in raising food. As part of Floyd County’s school-to-farm initiative, the student-grown vegetables will be used by the school’s cafeteria system, said agriculture and life sciences teacher Joe Tesauro.
Tesauro, 34, was hired to head the school farm project. He said he learned about the high school job opening while taking a break from a “bad day” on his farm, where he grows vegetables and specialty crops.
“I’ve been having a great time,” the second-year teacher said.
The potatoes are just the start. Students are already imagining what else they can produce on 15 acres that the school system is leasing at no cost from the Shelor Family Foundation.
“I hope it turns into a big garden taking up the whole land,” said eighth-grader Jaren Kandzior, who was captivated by the draft horses and excited about the farm’s possibilities.
“I like this view right now, but I’d like to see some greenhouses out here and maybe an orchard,” Reuben added.
The land used by the school is just part of the 250-acre Shelor family farm. The farmland is protected under a conservation easement secured by Nola Shelor Albert, a longtime Floyd County teacher and guidance counselor who died in 2009.
“She would have been absolutely delighted” with the school farm project, said Dwight Shelor, Albert’s cousin and a trustee of the Shelor Family Foundation.
The driving force behind Floyd’s school farm program was Kevin Harris, the county’s school superintendent since 2011. Harris came to Floyd from Carroll County, which had a thriving school farm program.
Students raised crops, sold produce and invested profits back into the farm, Harris said. The Carroll County students now raise livestock and grow the corn used to feed the animals, Harris said.
“There are a lot of people who have grown up here in Floyd County who would like to stay here in Floyd County,” Harris said. “There are lots of family farms. There may be niche markets that students could learn to capture. We have some of that going on in Floyd now. But the idea of getting them out on the farm and teaching them to do things, even if it’s just teaching them to put in their own garden to raise some fruits and vegetables for themselves, I think is a worthwhile endeavor.”
The Floyd agriculture students also will get some hands-on experience back at the school. Tesauro secured a grant to convert a shop room into a hydroponic production space to grow lettuce for the school system. Students will raise fish in a tank, use the fish waste to fertilize the lettuce, and return the plant-filtered water back to the tank, Tesauro said.
Reuben said he thinks more students will eat fruits and vegetables with their lunches if they know the products are grown locally.
“I just like the idea of the school not having to get all the additive stuff from whoever supplies the food to the cafeteria,” he said.
Tesauro said he doesn’t blame kids for passing on canned vegetables.
“If it comes out of a can, it’s not very good quality,” the teacher said. “We’re hoping that if it’s fresh and they have the pride of saying, ‘ We were involved in the harvesting of it,’ that they will get a little more open-minded toward eating more fruits and vegetables and less pizza and chicken nuggets.”