WATERLOO — The Seneca County Cornell Cooperative Extension has taken a page out of state Agricultural Commissioner Richard Ball’s book.
Ball invited New York City students to his upstate farm to grow squash, to give them a glimpse of how food makes the journey from seed to harvest and beyond.
Seneca County CCE educators have embarked on a similar project with all four county school districts thanks to a Farm to School grant from the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. Called Seed to Harvest, students across the county have been planting butternut squash seeds (as well as watermelon and nasturtium seeds) to grow over the summer. In the fall the items will be harvested and hopefully served in school cafeterias.
On a rare sunny day this past Tuesday, Skoi-Yase elementary school students helped plant seedlings in two newly constructed raised beds built by school and family volunteers. On hand to help were Candace Riegel and Mo Tidball, both nutrition educators with Seneca CCE.
Each of the four Seneca County school districts had a “champion” who took on the role of coordinating the seed growing initiative. In Waterloo it was art teacher Jean Gaylord, who is not a devoted gardener herself but recognized the project’s value.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for learning outdoors,” she said. “Kids love planting seeds. It’s magical to them.”
As different classes from different grades took turns entering the courtyard and planting the seedlings, their teachers and Riegel sprinkled in some lessons.
First-grade teacher Jean Shutter asked the students what roles the seedlings’ roots played. Arms thrust into the air as students answered that they transported water and nutrients to the plant and also helped hold the plant in place. And the leaves, Shutter added, work to catch the sun.
“It helps them make their own food,” she said.
Riegel pointed out that it takes all summer for the squash and watermelon to grow, but the students would reap the rewards of their efforts in the fall, when it’s harvest time.
“We’ll make a recipe if we get some of our nice butternut squash … then you guys can eat what you’ve grown,” she said.
Growing the nasturtium seedlings also provided a lesson in companion planning. Riegel, who complimented the youngsters on their good-looking seedlings, said nasturtium flowers help keep the bugs away from the squash plants. The flowers are also edible, with a peppery flavor, she added.
Some of the young gardeners donned pint-sized gloves before getting to work digging holes. Riegel explained that the seedlings, grown in peat pots, could go into the ground without being removed.
“They like it much better if you don’t mess with their roots,” she said.
Although one youngster warned there might be worms in the garden bed, that didn’t seem to be a deterrent to his peers.
As the students took turns pushing the dirt around a newly planted seedling, Tidball counseled them to do so gently.
Tuesday’s planting was the last among the four school districts, she said. In Seneca Falls, Jim Reagan and other fifth-grade teachers grew seeds and planted seedling in their school garden and at the new garden at New York Chiropractic College overseen by Riegel Family Farms. At South Seneca, seventh-grade science teacher Edith Fulton shepherded the project and planting in expanded raised beds at the Ovid Community Garden adjacent to the school property. And in Romulus, it was second-grade teacher Colleen Cook who championed the seed growing.
“This is just really to get the kids to know where their food comes from,” Tidball said.
Gaylord has incorporated the project into her lessons and has been a longtime fan of the Farm to School initiative, which can integrate so many academic subjects.
Last fall, she had her young students create still-lifes of what they would purchase at a farmers market after Extension educators visited and read a book about how crops go from farm to farm market. Recently, she had them create botanical drawings of their squash, watermelon and nasturtium seed-planting experience.
“It can be part of so many things,” Gaylord said of the Farm to School partnership. “It has so many possibilities. Working together will be really fun.”