Project designed to raise vegetables, education level on health benefits
AMARILLO – Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service is teaming up with Friends of Carver and Carver Elementary Academy to educate students on some of their favorite fruits and vegetables.
Dr. Ron French, AgriLife Extension plant pathologist in Amarillo, is guiding the project, “A Research and Hands-On Approach for Students to Understand the Importance of Specialty Crops for Good Health,” under a Texas Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant.
French said the purpose of this project is for students to be actively engaged in specialty crop production so they are aware of where food comes from, the nutritional value of each specialty crop of interest, pests and diseases that limit crop production, soil and plant nutrition, and differences in growing crops under field, greenhouse, hydroponic and aquaculture conditions.
The Texas Panhandle has a high rate of obesity, diabetes and, for many, a lack of knowledge of where food actually comes from, what plants provide such food or where in the plant that food grows, he said.
This project will focus on crops grown locally and valued for their nutritional content, which may have an important role in the lives of one or many ethnic groups that may consume such crops, French said.
Research and educational material generated will be available to Carver Elementary Academy, which is a part of the Amarillo Independent School System. It will be made available online in both Spanish and English, he said.
“We are building these gardens in the AISD elementary schools to teach children how to build and maintain gardens,” said Jamie Wheeler, director for Friends of Carver Academy and AgriLife Extension assistant. “We want to spread this all over the school district and also to children’s homes and to their parents.”
French said the students are planting different types of vegetable seeds, and they will see the plants grow and the fruit they produce, which is what they are familiar with from the supermarket.
“In the process, we’re going to teach them the nutritional benefits of some of these fruits, such as the tomato, which provides lycopene, an antioxidant,” he said. “Yes, you can buy them in the supermarket. Yes, they grow in the ground or above ground, but they actually have a point of origin. So they will learn, for example, that the potatoes we eat were domesticated by pre-Hispanic civilizations in the Andes of South America – Peru and other countries.”
The other part of the hands-on approach will be the harvest process, French said. Students will be able to see how much production comes from the garden, as well as the hydroponic greenhouse production at Carver.
The students will be directly involved in greenhouse and field experiments and collecting data such as yield, he said. They will potentially help generate educational material for children just like them. Providing education and information dissemination – fact sheets, bulletins and other informational materials – is a major component of AgriLife Extension’s involvement.
The school’s outside garden had not been used in 10 years and this grant allows students to go beyond the hydroponic production seen in the greenhouse to what is more common: garden/field agriculture, French said.
By conducting experiments themselves in a scientifically sound manner, the students are able to compare differences in yield, nutritional content and problems involved in growing a crop under different conditions: indoor and outdoor, and in conjunction with aquaculture.
Wheeler said the Friends of Carver Academy gardening project started in 2010, but they requested French’s initial help with plant disease and bug control last year.
“With the environment we live in here in the Texas High Plains, it can be difficult to grow cropswithout heavy use of pesticides, irrigation and herbicides,” Wheeler said. “What we are trying to teach here is that you don’t need all of that for small gardens.
“You do not even need to till the soil. You can build these beds out of readily available materials from the city’s recycling bins; all you need are some seeds and a little water and it will grow by itself.”
The beds are called “lasagna beds,” utilizing a method of layering of organic materials, he said.
“Because we are working with children, we don’t want chemicals used if possible. So, we start with a layer of cardboard, followed by a layer of compost, a layer of grass clippings, a layer of newspaper to kill grass seeds, another layer of compost and finish it off with a layer of mulch from the local chipping stations,” Wheeler said.
“You do not have to buy fertilizer; the fertilizer is available in the soil. The beds stay wet in this dry environment due to the way they are built. And you can virtually plant any kind of crop you want in these beds.”
Wheeler said students have planted sweet corn, cantaloupes, squash, gourds, potatoes, carrots, green beans and pumpkins. The students and their families will be able to come pick the vegetables during the summer.
“We’ve also planted some crops that will be ready for the kids when they come back after the summer break, so they can see the finished product,” Wheeler said.
Inside the greenhouse, there is a tropical plant and tree area to educate the students where different fruits, such as bananas and pineapple, come from, French said. An information sheet covering the scientific name, the origin, popular dishes and where the crops are being produced is placed next to each plant.
“This is a good teaching tool, because we cannot grow these types of crops in the Texas Panhandle and the Amarillo area because we do not have a tropical or subtropical climate,” he said. “This is a way to introduce people to crops they eat but don’t know how they are grown or what the nutritional benefits each of these specialty crops provide.”