PENN YAN — A planned visit by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand didn’t materialize, but that did little to dampen the enthusiasm over a new community garden unveiled Friday at Penn Yan Elementary School.
Several PYE students received certificates for being part of the school’s new Garden Club. It was one of several after-school clubs established after the school district received a multi-year grant from the state’s Extended School Day program.
“The senator couldn’t make it today, but we would still like to recognize this program. Two years ago, when we wrote the Extended School Day grant, we began to dream about the possibility of things we could do here for our community and with our community partners,” said school district Superintendent Howard Dennis. “This is exactly the type of program we were looking to create. This is an amazing benefit for our students, and that is what we were hoping for.”
The school district and students are working on the garden with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Yates County. Arlene Wilson, the agency’s executive director, said nearly 50 students are in the garden club.
“Children were able to select clubs they wanted to be part of, and there was an outcry for a garden among first-, second- and third-graders. We were surprised and thrilled,” Wilson said. “We provided the curriculum and strategies on how to grow a garden, helped in the planning and layout of the design, and taught children about parts of a plant, photosynthesis and pollinators. Then the kids actually rolled up their sleeves and put dirt into raised beds and tilled the soil for plants. So now we have a garden.”
Wilson noted that the Penn Yan Academy chapter of FFA (Future Farmers of America) built the raised beds. The theme of this year’s garden is salsa, which will include tomatoes, onions, cilantro and peppers, although some other areas of the garden will include cucumbers and other plants, and flowers to attract pollinators.
Gillibrand had scheduled a visit to the school to see the garden and hand out certificates, but her trip was canceled due to an undisclosed reason. She had also planned to speak out against the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for low-income families, which 13 percent of Yates County residents rely on for their meals.
Wilson said the SNAP-funded “Finger Lakes Eat Smart” program, a collaboration between 12 counties in the region, educates people on SNAP benefits and encourages eligible residents to enroll for them.
“Because Yates County has a high rate of poverty relative to some other areas, and being that agriculture is so highly valued in the county, we would like to get kids and families gardening,” she said. “Farmers and kids who live on a farm know about agriculture, but a lot of the kids who live in town might not. We want to pull them in, and their parents, to educate them about the value of gardening.”
Even though school is out for the summer, students and their families will work in the garden for six-week increments until the crops can be harvested in the fall. A harvest festival is being planned for that time.
“We have some families that have volunteered to help, but we could always use some more. Many hands make light work,” Wilson added. “Our Yates County master gardener will also help with weeding and watering. The crops have been in about two weeks and things are looking good.”
To volunteer for the community garden, call Yates County Cooperative Extension at (315) 536-5123.