North Stokes High School agriculture students and their classmates get to eat the fruits of the ag students’ labor now that the school farm has earned its Good Agricultural Practices certification. The school is the first in the state to earn this certification, which means the lettuce and other fruits and vegetables grown on the farm and in the greenhouses by students can now be served in the school cafeteria.
Farms selling produce to schools must be GAP-certified under N.C. Department of Public Instruction rules, but DPI is not alone in requiring this. More and more grocery stores, restaurants and retail locations are also requiring the certification. Food safety is at the core of these requirements, and that includes the ability to trace the crop forward and back, said Cindy Marion, former Stokes County Child Nutrition director. Marion now works with the Yadkin County school system.
“GAP is one of the most important things we can do in terms of food safety,” Marion said. “Food safety has to be No. 1. As a food service director, I want great local products for the kids. GAP is what makes that happen.”
So the students in Ben Hall’s horticulture and livestock ag programs are a step ahead of other farmers who have not yet embraced GAP certification, plus they are learning exactly what is required if you want to market produce in today’s market.
“We want to see more young people in agriculture, and this program is giving students who may have an interest in agriculture, a solid foundation. This program is teaching students what is going on in the real world, because the market is demanding GAP,” said Heather Barnes, a marketing specialist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “We don’t see this in every ag program in the schools.”
Barnes and Hall knows that not every student will want to pursue a career in agriculture, but are hopeful some will make a connection. Senior Austin Rutherford doesn’t see himself in the agricultural field, but he enjoys Hall’s horticulture class. “I like being outside and being able to get some fresh air,” Rutherford said. “Plus, we get to eat what we grow.”
Sophomore Nathan Southern has enjoyed the experience enough to consider agriculture as a possible career.
“I got into animal science as a freshman and then decided to sign up for this horticulture class,” Southern said. “I like it because plants aren’t as hard to get along with as people. A lot of my family has done farming, and I think I would like to get my own greenhouse or work in one.”
When Marion considered applying for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to get this GAP certification project off the ground, she knew North Stokes would be a good school for it. That was in part because of the work Hall had done to construct the greenhouse, add hydroponic equipment and boost the learning opportunities for his students. Putting all those pieces together involved a lot of community support and cooperation from other programs at the school.
“I chose North Stokes because of Ben’s program and the infrastructure he had with this program and his commitment to his students and this community. He already had a lot of groundwork laid, so we had a good foundation,” Marion said. “My vision for this was this program could be a learning experience for the students and the community.
“This is a farming community and many of the students have family in farming or experience with farming. When you’ve got high school students who already have this interest, that’s the place where you need to be connecting,” Marion said. “And, this community is still transitioning, still looking for things to diversify with. So this can help the community, as well.”
Besides being able to provide fresh produce for school lunches, staff hoped to be able to use the learning experience to show local farmers what is involved in gaining GAP certification.
“Our Extension office has been working for five years with GAP certification, trying to help older farmers look at these changes,” said Debbie Cox, N.C. Cooperative Extension director for Stokes County. “It can be costly for farmers, but by participating in this program, these students can then show their dads and granddads that they can do this on their own farms.”
Hall said the students were already doing much of what was required for GAP certification, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to become certified. Detailed record keeping was one of the biggest changes, but that has now become just another part of what students do in terms of production.
The facilities and land at the school mean the students can produce enough volume to be effective.
“I can’t feed 600 kids with six carrots,” Marion said. “We focused on getting certified with lettuce because we knew we could grow it well and have a lot of volume with it. It can be grown in our greenhouses, fields and in the high tunnels.”
Plus, by growing lettuce, students can see the process through to the end. “They can seed it and harvest it in one semester,” Hall said. “Tomatoes can take five months until harvest, so the lettuce is quicker.”
The short time between harvest and serving translates on the plate, too.
“The nutritional content is always going to better than something that has traveled across the country,” Marion said. “The quicker you get it to the plate, the better the nutritional content.”