Making Agriculture Fun For The Youth
This week we are talking with some special guests, Sarah and Monica from Eastern RI Conservation! We are going to discuss the Portsmouth AgInnovation. The Portsmouth AgInnovation has put together a student driven farm project. The program has been a huge success with the youth. Find out how this came together and what they are doing today.
Sara Churgin is the District Manager of the Eastern RI Conservation District. They are an environmental conservation organization that serves Newport and Bristol counties on natural resource concerns. If you would like to donate or volunteer then visit – https://www.easternriconservation.org/ You can also contact Sara at email@example.com
Episode 45 -Transcript
CLARICE: Hello, everybody. Thank you for tuning in to this week’s Environmentally Speaking. As you might have heard last week, we recorded on a Monday. We’re back to our Friday schedule, so I am back and full of my usual antics and energy. Marisa, how are you?
MARISA: Good. Friday afternoon. This is Marisa Desautel. I’m an environmental attorney in Rhode Island. Hi, Clarice.
CLARICE: Hello. And like we said, I’m Clarice. I’m coming in with your questions, topics, things that we want to talk about and I am very excited. This week we are meeting with Sarah and Monica and we are going to talk about the Portsmouth AgInnovation. So hello. Good afternoon, ladies.
MONICA: Hello. Good afternoon.
CLARICE: So I’m very excited to talk about this. Marisa sent me an e-mail letting me know this existed and all of the cool work you folks are doing. So tell our listeners about it. For somebody who’s never heard of Portsmouth AgInnovation, what is it?
SARAH: So my name is Sarah Churgin and I am the district manager which is like an executive director of the Eastern Rhode Island Conservation District and we are a 501c3 environmental conservation organization that serves Newport and Bristol Counties on natural resource concerns so water quality, soil, health, air quality. And one of the programs that we have which is in partnership with the Portsmouth School Department is the Portsmouth AgInnovation Farm. We started in 2019 when the property was – it’s about six acres of farmland – was given to us through Martin Beck who is the owner of Cloverbud Ranch. It’s on Jepson Lane in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. It’s right up the street from the middle school.
And he is a farmer with whom I had worked in the past and he asked me if Eastern District was interested in having a fallow piece of land that was on some prime agricultural property and I said, absolutely, not knowing what I wanted to do with it. But my on at the time was attending the middle school and very interested in agriculture and stormwater issues, water quality. The property abuts Sisson Pond which is one of the drinking water sources for Aquidneck Island and an impaired water source but is actually getting better and it helps to teach the kids about water quality.
Anyhow, I went to the middle school and had a meeting with my amazing partner in this project Margie Brennan who is the science coach for Portsmouth School Department K through eight and the principal Mr. Arruda and the assistant principal Mrs. Goodwin and we talked about partnering up and doing a student-driven community farm education program which is exactly what we have been creating there. COVID hit. It had to be virtual for the first semester, which Margie did incredibly well. Twenty-five students signed up for an after-school program voluntarily. I always say that, voluntarily.
And so Bella Barber who is Monica’s daughter who is also on this program was one of our founding members at the time she was in seventh grade and we have built a program from that. So going from fallow land to, for the past two years, building a curriculum, which Margie is the one who has completely done that, to building infrastructure. We went from having nothing on the property. We have a seasonal high tunnel which is like a greenhouse. It extends the growing season for planting. We have two sheds. We have eight-foot deer fencing. We have a classroom. We have part of a – it’s not even – we’re trying to do a shade pavilion because there’s really no shade on the property and this was our first summer of doing camp.
Margie ran camp for three weeks. It was a pilot just to see if kids were interested. Incredibly interested. It was Monday through Thursday. They would say to her on Thursday, Mrs. Brennan, please can we come tomorrow, can we come tomorrow. And during the heatwave she offered to, you know, reschedule it for next week. The kids were like, no, no, we want to come back. So, I mean, she’s done just an amazing job. And I have staff that also works to help Margie with when camp is in session. And then because if anyone knows about running a farm, there is a lot of work to do, so there’s Eastern staff that is there doing everything to help make the farm work.
[0:05:28] CLARICE: Okay. I have a thousand follow-up questions. That’s such a great story. I mean, the idea of getting gifted this plot of land and thinking, we’re going to do a student-driven farm project. What a cool undertaking. That’s awesome. So what does that look like? And, Monica, I’d love to hear what that looks like for Bella, too, because it sounds like there’s the educational piece but also that piece of this really is becoming a farm. It’s really growing in its own way. So, Monica, what did that look like on your end?
MONICA: So from my end, so cue global pandemic, right, March of 2020 and right before that Mrs. Brennan had gone into my daughter’s classroom in seventh grade at the Portsmouth Middle School and asked if kids were interested in this new club that they were going to try to come up with, right. So full disclosure, I’m a scientist. So my daughter was like, yeah, sure, you know, whatever, this will make my mom happy. But little did she know that she was actually going to enjoy it, too. So she signed up and was like, okay. And then they shut down on the 13th of March.
And, you know, Margie – if there’s anybody in the Portsmouth school district that can kickstart something like this it’s Margie Brennan and so she figured out a way to virtually have the club meet after school. So the kids would do all of their Google Meets during the day for class and then they would still meet, you know, as it were an after-school club and they did everything virtually from coming up with, I think it was, five things that they wanted to happen initially on the farm – it was either five or seven, but five sticks out in my head – you know, drawing it on pen and paper, taking pictures of it, putting it up on Google, sharing it with each other, going into little groups together to work on specific projects including chicken coop. You know, as Sarah mentioned, you know, deer fencing, crops. I mean, you name it, they had it all out there.
And I feel like from a parent’s perspective I honestly feel like it was the one thing that my daughter looked forward to during the pandemic that kept her going in the classroom environment because she was interacting with student even though they were virtual. It was really kind of that first thing that they were able to do because otherwise it was just sort of one-sided, yet here they were working together. And these kids didn’t even step foot on the land until the following school year and then they actually got to see the property and then that’s when really things started to flourish.
And now, I mean, you know, two years later my daughter’s just finished her freshman year of high school at Portsmouth High. She’s still involved. She’s actually starting a club at the high school to have this continue to transition from the middle school and, you know, so that the students that are at the middle school know that there’s another aspect of this. And, I mean, this is steam to no end, right. I mean, you’ve got science. You’ve got technology. You’ve got the engineering. You’re got the art. You’ve got math. These kids have no idea that they’re doing all of these things when they’re there because they’re outside.
And, you know, I’ve volunteered there. So as my husband. We’re digging trenches. We’re pulling weeds because it’s so much fun to be out there with kids who are enjoying themselves. They never have their phones. You know, they’re just having a fantastic time and they’re always smiling. And we’ve gone out and filmed some of the activities on the farm just to memorialize it for Margie and for Sarah and for everybody just so they have it. And the kids are absolutely having the best time. They’re fishing down there now at Sisson Pond. You know, they’re learning how to drive a tractor. They’re learning everything that you can possibly know, as Sarah said, about how hard it is to actually run a farm, but in addition to that they’re having an appreciation for, you know, farm to table. So these students are growing food. Last year they grew food and they donated it because it was the pandemic and where could it go. And so they’re learning the value of just everything that you could possibly imagine.
[0:09:53] MARISA: The fact that you just said that kids are not on their phones, I mean, you had me at that. That’s amazing.
MONICA: Yeah. Yeah. They don’t even think about it, don’t even think about it. Although, I will say that they are going to try to figure out a way to get Wi-Fi there so they can bring their Chromebooks, but that’s from the educational standpoint. You know, it’s not that they’re on their phones. I mean, they don’t even realize – I don’t even think they realize how long they’re spending outside until their parents come to pick them up and then all of a sudden it’s like, oh, we have to go home, but we have so much more to do.
MARISA: Yeah. Wow.
MONICA: You know, it’s amazing.
MARISA: So can you tell us about how Desautel Law and AgInnovation got to meet each other because that’s the exciting thing, I think, the good news for the kids.
SARAH: I’m sorry. Oh, the PEYA award?
MONICA: Yeah. So I’ll jump in. So Margie put together an application for the Presidential Environmental Youth Award and submitted that to the Environmental Protection Agency which goes through an extensive review process. And, you know, obviously I’m not entirely sure what the whole thing is, but long story short the kids that are involved with the AgInnovation Farm one for region one which is our region here in Rhode Island and have been invited to go to Washington D.C. on August 4th to receive their award in person at the EPA building.
Now, of course it’s the summer and, you know, things are a little bit difficult, so as parents we were trying to figure out a way if we could support the students’ travel and, you know, housing, lodging while we were there. So we started a fundraising campaign with Sarah’s group so that we could have some sort of a way to facilitate the donations that were coming in and we were contacted by Desautel Law as a way if they could somehow match the funds for this because of what Marisa is involved in. And obviously she can speak to that. I’ve read everything you say and it’s like my dream from the environmental law standpoint since I deal with a lot of environmental law things here. So just it’s a fantastic collaboration between interests from all across the board to support these students to go and receive this important award.
And as a parent we really wanted them to experience D.C., getting an award and the accolades that go along with it because as students, like I said, I don’t know if they realize the work that they’re doing and that here they are being celebrated for it. And it’s absolutely phenomenal that they’re being invited to go to D.C. and to actually see D.C. in a positive light and see how some of these things can work. And so this relationship is just phenomenal and hopefully we can get Marisa out to the farm so she can see it firsthand which would be awesome, and you, too. So that would be great.
[0:13:14] CLARICE: Hey, once the kids put Wi-Fi out there we’ll do a live episode.
MONICA: That would be amazing.
SARAH: Yeah. That sounds great.
MONICA: That’s a great idea.
CLARICE: I just had this vision of Marisa and I with microphones like sitting in the middle of the veggie patch. I think that’s going to work out great. And I think that’s so important to – I mean, yes there is that level of they’re enjoying it and they’re motivated to do this but also to have them be celebrated for the work that they’ve done on this I think is so important. And like you said, to take in that acknowledgment and get to go to D.C., that’s going to be really awesome for them.
SARAH: And the thing that’s really important about this – I mean, both I and Monica have said this – but it is a student-driven program, so anything that is done on this project, it starts with the kids. Like they will come up with an idea and then they have to figure out a way. You know, they have to research it and then show to us that it actually will work. And if, you know, Margie and I both feel it has, you know, validity to it and they have presented it with evidence and everything then we will go and find the money to make sure that it happens. But it’s not us coming in and saying, as the adults, okay, this is what we’re going to do at the farm.
And we are, in fact, starting with the fall we’re going to have an advisory board and so that we can come up with a strategic plan for the farm and because the owner of the property – his name is Paul Zurlo and he is just a conservationist at heart and he has said to us – I mean, Martin is the one who is the farmer on it, but as the owner of the property he has said that he would like to see this program last for as long as possible. You know, so he’s given us – right now we have a five-year lease for a dollar and it’s going to get extended but that the – I totally lost what my train of thought was going to be.
But, anyhow, it’s all about the kids and mending the ones who are the driving force, not — oh, I know, the advisory board. So the advisory board – sorry — is going to be myself and Margie and then three students which, you know, is pretty unusual but, I think, very necessary so they really have a say in what is going on and so then at least the seventh – they’ll be there for seventh and eighth grade and then, you know, they’ll go up to high school. And as Bella is helping to get the club going there, they’ll still be able to be a part of it. But student driven, really important.
CLARICE: Let’s talk a little bit more about that student-driven process. I know you touched on the fact that the students come up with whatever idea that they want to execute. They need to figure out what execution looks like and then they present it. What are some things that they’ve planned? What are some things that they are planning? Is it as minute as, we’ve all decided together we’re going to put tomatoes here? Or how big or small does that process go?
[0:16:24] SARAH: So like Monica said, they came up with the initial drawing and there was a drawing that we had used in a lot of our grants that actually Margie’s daughter is the one who drew it. But that drawing became our footprint, our blueprint for the farm, so it really looks exactly like the way they did where they wanted the plots to be, where they wanted the high tunnel to be. And then when Margie is working with them in the classroom, I mean, last year – so this is only our second growing season and last year we did a plot that was like 70 by 90 and that’s – it’s a big plot. And last summer it rained. I mean, it’s not like this summer. It rained, so we had so many weeds and the kids apparently came into Margie this year and were like, Mrs. Brennan, that plot was too big. Like that’s too much. And so then they worked together on what the plot was going to look like for this year, so it’s a very different look than it was last year. So, you know, it wasn’t like Margie saying, oh, forget it, it’s going to be, you know, the 70 by 90 again.
MONICA: Sorry. I was going to say the kids identify a problem, but not only do they identify the problem, they have to come up with the solution, right. And so as Sarah is saying, they have to do the research and come up with it, test it out, you know, whatever it is to see if it’s feasible to see if it will work. Sometimes things work. Sometimes they don’t. But that’s exactly how we problem solve and figure these things out and so that’s a perfect example of how they came up with – you know, through trial and error, right, to make these things work.
And so that’s how they’re going from, you know, hands-on experiential learning right there that’s student-driven learning that, again, they’re not necessarily totally aware that they’re learning as much as they are until they walk away and they realize, oh, yeah, I did this on the farm and now I’m doing it in the classroom, huh. So it’s been very eye-opening, I think, for a lot of the students and the parents. We’re just blown away. I mean, Sarah, what are there 65, 68 students in the club?
CLARICE: Is it just limited to seventh and eighth grade?
SARAH: No. Well, the camp was open to the middle school. And, again, it was – you know, Margie [inaudible] just to see, so she capped it at – it was 15 students, yeah, for the week – or for the three weeks. And the classes are – because she goes two days a week during the after school. It’s two different groups, so it’s 25 in each. I think it’s 25 in each group. But, you know, we’re constantly looking for funding so that we can expand because Margie’s only one person. If we could clone her, it would be great, but to be able to have more funding to hire more educators so that we could have more kids.
And the goal is to have it happen during school time, as well, so that the teachers can come out and do the same teaching. And a long-term goal is – well, not that long-term – hopefully maybe in the next couple years to have it be island wide so that the schools in Middletown and in Newport can be included. But something I just remembered about the students coming up with solutions.
Margie actually just posted a video this past week because we have six chickens and so when Margie is there with the kids she lets the chickens out of the enclosed area into the bigger enclosed area, but they found a way of getting out under the double door fencing for the deer fencing. And so the kids came up with a way in which to attach chicken wire to the bottom of the deer fencing and so that it closed off that gap. And they did that all themselves and she, you know, filmed the process. And so that was on the spot. It wasn’t like it was part of an education plan that Margie had or anything. It was just like, okay, here we have a problem. We need to solve it right away, or we’re going to lose our chickens.
[0:20:52] CLARICE: I didn’t even think about the fact that it wasn’t just – in my mind it was a farm for more planting and, you know, vegetables and flowers.
SARAH: Yeah. That was my idea, as well, because I am so scared of the chickens like getting out, but the kids from day one like back with COVID we are like we want – we have six egg laying chickens.
MONICA: That’s probably part of my daughter’s fault, pushing that chicken thing. So, yes. But they’re great. We love them.
CLARICE: When we do the [inaudible] interview, how many cows will you all have by then?
SARAH: Yeah, well, the next is Margie would like to get some goats, yeah.
MONICA: We’re not that far off.
SARAH: Smaller, though, smaller, you know.
CLARICE: There’s only a few stepping stones here, Sarah.
SARAH: No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. Martin already – he has a business. That’s his business Cloverbud Ranch and he has 35 head in the back of the property, so that’s where the cattle are and that’s where they can stay.
CLARICE: Oh, that’s awesome. So I know that you just mentioned all of these, you know, semi long future plans for involving other schools and building in more staff to facilitate more students, but what are the — have the students come up with their own set of goals for this farm and do they have long-term goals that they’ve created?
SARAH: That’s what the strategic plan that we work on with the advisory board is going to be about.
CLARICE: Okay. Very cool.
SARAH: Yeah. Because it’s really been about, for the past two years, you know, getting what that sketch was and then finding the funding to get to where we are at this point.
CLARICE: And speaking of funding, I know that we had talked about some funding for the D.C. trip. We talked about future farm funding. Give me more info. How can people get involved with both ends? Is there volunteering? Money is always a good holiday present? Tell me more.
SARAH: So if they go to the EasternRIConservation.org website, right at the very top right now it says to be able to donate to the D.C. trip. And then there’s also just general donation that you can donate to the farm and there’s a donation page to be able to do that. And volunteering, if someone is interested in volunteering, so that means if they – you know, we have an app that we send out if there is – like we need – there’s a weeding day or if people would like to just come on their own and help to weed we can – someone could e-mail me which is at SChurgin – C-h-u-r-g-i-n –.EricD — so E-r-i-c-d as in dog — @gmail.com and then I could hook them up with being able to volunteer.
[0:24:17] CLARICE: Awesome. And I’ll make sure to include both your e-mail for volunteer opportunities and the website in our show notes. So, folks, as you’re listening, if this is something that you want to follow up with they’re already linked in our show description, so that way you’ll have quicker access to that. And do you happen to know how far off you are from your D.C. goal?
SARAH: We’ve passed our D.C. goal, so, I mean, it was –
SARAH: Which is amazing. Our goal had been 5,000 and then you guys came in with your very generous match offer when we were at about – well, we hadn’t quite hit 2,500 yet, but we’re now at 7,040 when I last looked this morning so really incredible.
MONICA: And that’s without your match.
MARISA: Oh, man. That’s great.
SARAH: Thank you.
CLARICE: Oh, that’s really exciting. Normally if you two have ever listened to our podcast it usually ends with some form of bad news and I have to say I was really afraid when I asked this question we would get some bad news answer.
SARAH: Oh, no.
CLARICE: So this is great.
SARAH: No. I mean, Marisa, you know, your match just really was incredible, generous. And to know that farming was part of, you know, your education in the past and helped for you to formulate what you wanted to do later in life just, you know, reinforces what we’re doing. I mean, not that we had any, you know, doubt about it anyhow, but it’s just great. You know, and it would also be a great thing, I think, if, you know, aside from getting a tour of the farm for you to be able to come when kids are there to talk about your experience and how it influenced you.
MARISA: I’m happy to do that. Although, I have to say I would have anxiety not being on my phone and I feel like I would kill the vibe over there.
MONICA: They could make you calm.
CLARICE: No Wi-Fi and just some lawyer talking at them in the sun, this sounds so great.
MONICA: There’s a schoolhouse there that, you know, has a bell and it’s, you know, very fun. And I swear you pick up a chicken and you’re immediately calm.
CLARICE: Might sit with a plant. I hate to confess this and this might not be the audience to confess it to. I am afraid of chickens a little bit, so.
[0:27:03] MONICA: We have a student who has been absolutely fantastic who flat out said he was scared of chickens and I tell you what, he was in the chicken coop with my daughter and I and he turned to me and he said, starting to warm up to them. So, you know, it’s possible.
MONICA: We’ll get you there.
CLARICE: He’s my man. He’s going to be my tour guide for this.
CLARICE: So thank you both so much for talking about the exciting work you’re doing, letting all of our listeners know how they can get involved. And I would love – I really love to watch this project grow and see what all of these student are creating. This is such a cool opportunity that – not to sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but this was not around when I was a kid. This was not an option for me.
SARAH: Same here.
MARISA: Yeah. Thank you, ladies. The work that you’re doing is so important, so keep it up.
SARAH: Well, thank you. And thank you for giving us the opportunity to talk about it.
MONICA: Yeah. Thank you so very much.
SARAH: And thank you for getting our kids to D.C.
CLARICE: While we’re on the train of thanks, shout-out to Margie who was not here. Thank you for all of your work. I hope you listen to this episode and know how appreciated you are by Sarah, Monica, and the students. Thank you to Paul for dollar leases. That’s exciting. Don’t spread that around too much. They really made something really cool, so I hope they listen to this, too, and know that there are adults sitting at their desks thinking about all of the things that a kid’s accomplished that they probably wouldn’t know where to start with, so that’s something to be really proud of. And everybody listening, I guess thank you to you, too. You’re here. You listened. You did it.
If you have any questions, comments, follow-ups, if you want to learn more about the farm or other local agriculture or agro innovation opportunities, reach out to us at Help@Desautel.ESQ. You can also hit us up on social medias with things that you want to hear us talk about. And like I said at the top, we are going to put in information on how to get involved in our show notes, so you’ll be able to find both Sarah’s e-mail – thank you again – and ways to get involved and to donate. On that note, happy Friday, everybody.
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