One class, two opportunities; students learn about agriculture and entrepreneurship

SAINT ANDREWS – Students at Sir James Dunn Academy in Saint Andrews are getting some hands-on experience in the world of gardening. Principal David O’Leary said this project began approximately four years ago, “with a dream” of a group of students who were concerned about food security, and wanted to improve it in Charlotte County; particularly in the Saint Andrews area. So, they built the first greenhouse, and O’Leary said it was a very interesting project. They made a lot of mistakes during that first year, but each mistake was an opportunity to learn.

“It was a student-led initiative, and the first thing we found out is that all of our dreams were failures. Everything we did were mistakes. It was the best thing possible. The kids really stayed positive about it and said, ‘how do we make it better’,” said O’Leary.

O’Leary said this initiative led to a group of four or five students who really wanted to focus on constructing a larger greenhouse. They received plenty of support from the community, and through fundraising were able to generate the revenue needed to construct their new greenhouse. After those students graduated, a new program, Agricultural Science 12-0, was started. O’Leary said the students have a period each day where they go out to the greenhouse and tend to the gardening.

The first unit of the course involves looking at agricultural development, as well as agriculture throughout the world, and the history of agriculture. Then, they started getting into the nitty gritty, learning about soil science, plant nutrition, and plant science.

“Then, we basically got our hands really dirty, and they’ve been dirty ever since,” said O’Leary. “The great part for me is that the students have just taken over. The kids have really taken on ownership of the project and have really followed it through. The Grade 9’s, they are the class that brought it to market. Yesterday at the farmers’ market in Saint Andrews, we would have sold over 30 plants. It’s really cool. The response from the community is absolutely tremendous. The market hadn’t even opened and we sold two plants.”

All of the money raised from the sale of the plants goes right back into the program. O’Leary said this is a “self-generating” program where the kids not only learn valuable gardening skills, but also entrepreneurial skills, life skills, and hand skills.

Before they could begin growing anything this year, the greenhouse needed an irrigation system in place to ensure that the plants receive just the right amount of water. They also had to re-design the heating system to make it safe and secure. O’Leary said the students did all of this work themselves, and he is “super-proud” of them for taking on this initiative.

“They’re great, healthy skills. This has given us a really viable option for our students.”

Grade 12 student Trysten England does a lot of this maintenance work himself, and said he repairs whatever he is able to repair; or at least tries. He has worked on everything from doors to heaters to tables and more.

“Just about everything you see, we’ve done something to,” said England.

The concept of this initiative is, “all you can eat in three square feet”. The students are essentially learning how to grow their own gardens. This year, they have chosen four plants to grow, two varieties of tomato plants and two varieties of peppers. O’Leary said if you can grow these plants, you can probably grow pretty much any other vegetable that would be found in a garden.

While busy working with the irrigation system and making the table look neater, Grade 11 student Kadynne Urquhart said she decided to take the course because it would give her an opportunity to do some real, hands-on work, which she enjoys. This is the second time she has taken this particular class.

“I did it last year, and I didn’t get to do the full thing because of COVID, so I decided to take it again just to be able to do more hands-on work,” said Urquhart.

As Urquhart was working, O’Leary explained that the irrigation system is for watering only, and fertilization is done separately. This is due to the fact that they wouldn’t be able to get a consistent amount of fertilizer to the plants, and this could actually “do more harm than good”. He said the school is not “scientifically able to manage the volume of fertilizer into the plants with this system”.

Grade 11 student Hoby Haughn explained a bit about the fertilization process.

“The fertilizing process is, we’re taking the fertilizer and pour it in, and then you mix with one liter of water, and then you spray it so it can grow. It will give it nutrients so it goes bigger,” said Haughn.

Jakyn Daigle, another Grade 11 student, took a few minutes away from reorganizing the Moskvich tomatoes to explain how a toothbrush can be used to pollinate plants. They use the toothbrush to help release pollen from the plants’ flowers. He said this manner of pollination is similar to how a bee would pollinate plants.

Daniel Khoshbakhtian and Ian Johnson, both in Grade 12, led a quick tour of the propagation room, which they said is “kind of like a plant nursery”. This is where all of the plants get their start before being moved into the main greenhouse. Khoshbakhtian said along with plants the class is growing, there are also plants being grown by individuals within the school.

“There’s some that are just sprouting now, and some that are almost full-grown and ready to be taken to the other greenhouse,” said Khoshbakhtian.

Johnson said they have tried starting plants from various stages. Some of the plants were started right from seeds, while others were started from snips taken off other plants. They have replanted these sips, and now there are new plants growing.

“All these lights were covered in tomato plants at the start of the year,” said Johnson, pointing towards the lights on the ceiling. “There were tomato plants all the way up here and all the way down there, and there were peppers back here. All of what was in here at the start of the year is now in the greenhouse. That’s all the plants you see.”