Sunday, August 4, 2013

A delicious agricultural education partnership of raspberries and blackberries

Raspberries and blackberries grown by students at the Carroll County High School FFA chapter are for sale at Hillsville's Red Hill General Store. Our partnership with the local FFA chapter helps fund the practical education we believe gives future leaders an edge in life. The most valuable resource a community has is its young adults. We will always support and invest in them and their future; when we can. As a small local business, Red Hill uniquely links the agriculture work of students to the consumer market.

Pints of blackberries - $2.99
Pints raspberries - $3.99

When you buy local you're also voting for better local education and leaders of tomorrow. The following was photos and story of the school farm published in The Galax Gazette by Christopher Brooke.

Some school assignments can be sweet, the Carroll County High School agriculture classes have learned — especially when it involves picking raspberries during a varieties trial at the school’s farm. Students have to watch that they don’t also get the thorns at the same time. 

Working at the Carroll County FFA farm can be both refreshing and thorny, said students picking raspberries in the high tunnel greenhouse.

Students see it as a welcome break from sitting in the classroom, and there’s also the fringe benefit of keeping a few of the overripe berries out of the nine gallons or so that they pluck off the approximately five foot-high canes.

Every once in a while, students will spare the consumer those berries by chewing them up before grabbing another that’s just right and dutifully putting the rest in the small green plastic pint container. Also, infrequently, a student yelps and pulls their hand back from the canes because they just stuck their finger on the pointy bits.

The four varieties of blackberries in the other greenhouse include the kind without the stickers, but you have to watch out for the raspberries, said ag instructor Randy Webb.

“These things are not thornless,” he said, picking alongside the students. “These things will eat you alive.”

Notwithstanding the possibility of getting a minor stab wound from the vegetation, both Webb and the 10th grade students in second block feel glad to have this alternative agriculture opportunity.

From Webb’s perspective as an instructor, the high tunnel greenhouses hold a crop experiment and a science project, revenue for the Future Farmers of America, as well as a teaching tool.

The initiative started with Virginia Tech sharing in the expense of putting up one of the greenhouses next to crop rows that hold corn and sorghum stalks.

The agreement required a match, so the second greenhouse was paid for by Carroll County Public Schools.
University officials also required that the greenhouses hold a crop not usually found in Southwestern Virginia. So, educators called on a second partner, Virginia State University, to provide the berry crops. The trial that the ag class undertook with the berries involved extending the growing season inside the greenhouses. Unlike other structures, high tunnel greenhouses have no heating or ventilation systems — other than from opening the doors and panels on the side. Trapping the solar heat inside the walls creates a thermal blanket to keep the temperature from dropping under freezing when the sun sets, the teacher said. This simple method will start the canes’ growth earlier in the year and keep it going longer into fall.

“It just extends your growing season,” Webb said. “We’re picking way beyond what normal blackberries and raspberries grow here.”

He directed the students to keep the canes pruned back this year, a plan to keep the raspberries from producing until after a particularly busy FFA state convention in July, when Carroll County native Dustin Richardson was selected as president of the Virginia organization. Students continue to pick the berries three times a week, and Webb expects the season to last into October.

The plan for next year’s growing season will involve students picking the healthier cane and cutting the others back, the teacher said. That will cause the unpruned ones to flower early so harvesting those can begin as early as May.

The pruned ones will come back as normal, spreading out the crop.

Students could use that as an agriscience project, and they could understand it as a lesson in supply and demand at the same time.
“Students are getting to come out here and harvest a marketable product,” Webb said.

If they wanted to earn an supplemental income, these students could replicate the berry growing at home, he added.

What the class makes off the school’s farm will go back to benefit the students.

“The ultimate goal is we pay FFA membership dues so we have 100 percent membership,” Webb said, noting that in these times $15 can make a difference to struggling families. “Our program is becoming basically self-supporting.”

The 10th graders with Webb that day didn’t foresee themselves as picking berries at home to sell.
They do take what they find on the side of the road, the students admit. The possibilities include eating them in the car or saving them for a cobbler.

But students enjoy their hands-on work at the farm. The thorns aren’t part of the fun, said Jessica Gardner, “but you deal with it.”

It’s relaxing and educational, Caitlin Newman agreed. “I think it’s like a break,” she said. “I think it helps me in my other classes — you get to go out and do stuff, I think it helps you concentrate better.”

“You’re not as stressed, I don’t think,” Gardner said.

Seeing the plants in the field will also help with other academics, Webb added. The familiarity with the growing process should help students in classes like biology, for example.

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