Down on the Farm: Discovering Local Food Sources

May 18, 2015

A recent survey showed 28% of Virginians have a hard time getting fresh fruit and vegetables in their communities.  What’s more, half of kids said they would head for a fast food restaurant or convenience store if given $5 for food. 

To counter those problems, a group of teachers is taking Richmond kids to the farm, where they dance, sing and discover the wonders of compost.  Sandy Hausman went along and has this report.

When third graders from Richmond’s southside get off the bus at Shalom Farms in Goochland, they might think eggs come from Styrofoam cartons, but a visit to the chicken coop quickly sets them straight.

“It’s just like the kind of egg you guys  at at the grocery store.  It has a yoke.  There’s no baby chicken inside.  Why do you guys think it’s still warm?  Because they’ve probably been sitting on it.  Right, did you guys know these lady chickens – they lay an egg every day?   Say ‘thanks ladies. Thanks ladies.’”

That lesson learned, educators from the non-profit Blue Sky Fund move on to the day’s main subject – caring for soil.

“Does anyone see any chicken poop? Yes. So chicken poop is really, really good.  It’s like a kind of fertilizer, so we like the chicken poop to be here, because we’re going to grow crops here later.”

Then it’s on to cover crops.

“Okay, ready, set, go!”

Teacher Stephanie McCullough coaches the kids as they run in place, explaining that soil can also get tired and need a rest.  Planting cover crops on this land, owned by United Methodist Urban Ministries of  Richmond -- will provide nutrients to the soil, and their roots will keep it from washing away in the rain.

“So do you see how it’s running out, but is it running as that other water … roots from the crops hold all that soil together.”

Finally, it’s off to the compost pile, fed by a surprising corporate contribution.  Dominic Barrett is Executive Director of Shalom Farms.

“We’ve actually recently scaled up our composting operation due to a corporate partnership with Capital One.  They’ve got their largest campus in the country not too far from here, and so they send two truckloads a week of food scraps from their kitchen that can be added into our compost operation that allows us to more sustainably grow more food.”

The kids learn how worms and microbes turn garbage into rich soil, and they celebrate the lesson with a song and dance.

“I got compost.  It smells funky.  It’s breaking down now.  It started with a carrot.  Some cabbage.”

This field trip also allows kids to sample fresh vegetables and fruit.  Barrett says it’s hard to complete with junk food that’s engineered to please the human palate.

“We can’t design our yellow squash to break at 4.2 pounds of pressure per square inch  the way Doritos can design their Doritos to break  at that perfect pressure point in our mouth.”

But he’s got a secret weapon.

“I also often talk about ranch dressing being  sort of the gateway drug to healthy food, and so I’m okay if we have to find creative ways  to get folks to try that broccoli the first time, to try that raw carrot stick or raw squash stick and begin to develop a relationship with good healthy food and a joy and love of good healthy food.”

And once the kids are hooked on fresh produce, they can bug their parents to buy more of it from farm stands in the city sponsored by Shalom and staffed by students who live in the neighborhood.