Where there was a barren courtyard at Northern High School, there is now a garden. Or gardens.
There’s a garden of plants that make tea, a “bramble” garden with blackberry and raspberry vines, a garden to attract pollinating insects – even a pizza garden, with rosemary, oregano, thyme and other herbs.
“Most people don’t realize all those herbs and spices that go into making a pizza, they come from plants,” said Larry Wooten, president of the state Farm Bureau. “They think they must have just floated on the pizza.”
Wooten was one of the dignitaries at Northern last week for a dedication of the latest addition to the school’s Outdoor Learning Center: two beds raised high enough that students in wheelchairs can reach in to plant and tend growing things.
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The transformed courtyard is largely a student product, built and tended by youngsters in Northern’s agriculture and occupational courses with help from the Durham County Soil and Water Conservation staff.
It represents the revived interest on the part of educators and the agricultural community in teaching the younger generation where their food comes from and the opportunities for agricultural careers.
“The average age of a farmer in this state is about 58,” said Talmage Layton, chairman of the Durham Soil and Water supervisors.
“Which means there’ve got to be young people coming to take up the mantle, to grow this food supply,” Layton said. “You don’t feed this nation without somebody getting in the field and getting their hands dirty.”
Expanding agricultural education was one recommendation in the “Agricultural Development and Farmland Protection Plan” the Durham County Board of Commissioners adopted in 2009.
Over the past few years, urban gardens have sprouted at numerous Durham schools, Durham Public Schools established a “Hub Farm” on Milton Road in 2012 and that same year instituted an agriculture program at Northern High – which draws many of its students from still-rural northern Durham County.
Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources is a magnet program at Northern. Agriculture teacher Demikia Taylor said she has about 60 students in her four horticulture and animal science classes, and about 12 members in the school’s Future Farmers of America club.
“I fell in love with it,” said junior Keith Blake, the club’s vice president. “It’s great knowing we have this much interest.”
Blake said he lives in the Southern High School district but applied to Northern’s magnet agriculture track and has thoughts of farming in the future.
“I love being outside, as if you can’t tell,” he said.
“The key is to get the students to see that agriculture isn’t going anywhere and it’s a great field to be in,” said Taylor, who said she was raised on a small farm in Caswell County.
“Some of them like animal science, some of them do like farming. ... They say, ‘Oh, I could work in this field’ or ‘I can own my own business’ or something like that. That’s the key,” she said.
Back to the country
Northern has plans to grow its courtyard garden, she said: adding a butterfly garden, rain garden and memorial garden for students who died before finishing school.
Sophomore Ashleigh Kincy, the FFA president, said she wants to be a veterinary pathologist, and working in the school gardens “helps us to understand how much hard work goes into growing crops.
“And helps us enjoy the environment,” Kincy said.
Dignitaries on hand included state Agriculture Secretary Steve Troxler and several executives from WalMart, which has donated money for outdoor learning centers at schools statewide through the N.C. Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation.
The event at Northern was “sort of a thank-you to WalMart” on behalf of the foundation, the
Several made the point that children, and the general public, have become disconnected with the natural world and the sources of the food they eat – even the countryside itself.
Taylor said she recently took some of her students to a Future Farmers event in farm-heavy Johnston County.
“And they said, ‘It’s so rural out here. There’s no stores.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s how it is.’ ”