Growing Community: Newfield school garden project benefits more than students

By Rob Montana
Tompkins Weekly

 

NEWFIELD – All it takes is a tiny seed to grow into a fruitful plant, with strong roots spreading beyond what was initially envisioned.
That’s what has happened at Newfield Central School, where its community garden project has grown from some simple container gardens in a courtyard to a larger outdoor planting area and plans for more. Newfield is currently raising funds to add a high tunnel to its “pool” garden, creating the ability for its project to increase its growing season.

Photo by Kristy Montana / Tompkins Weekly Newfield’s “pool” garden shows signs of its past use with a “No Diving” warning still visible on the concrete pad surrounding the growing area.
Photo by Kristy Montana / Tompkins Weekly
Newfield’s “pool” garden shows signs of its past use with a “No Diving” warning still visible on the concrete pad surrounding the growing area.

Andrew Battles, who oversees the project and uses the garden spaces with his Environmental Science class, said the idea came about three years ago when then-Newfield High School Principal Barry Derfel suggested creating raised bed gardens in the school’s courtyard.
“He thought about issues of hunger in Newfield,” Battles said of Derfel’s push for the garden. “The Honor Society ran a canned food drive, and so there obviously was a need. He wanted to start the courtyard garden as a model to teach kids how to grow their own food.”
Steve Yaple, manager of Newfield’s facilities and security, had the idea to use the school district’s former pool area for a much bigger garden space.
“The pool had been closed and we didn’t want to open it back up; it was losing water each season,” he said. “I saw an opportunity to expand it (the garden project) by using the pool, the school board agreed and we turned it into a garden. Rather than have an empty pool, I thought we could do something useful with it.”
In addition to building a high tunnel at the “pool” garden, Yaple and Battles say that turning the former pool house, which previously housed locker rooms and now functions only as storage space, into a classroom is a project in the planning stages.
“I’m working on how to turn that into a classroom,” Yaple said.
“A place where you can have a kitchen, freezer, a place where you could do canning,” Battles added, suggesting possibilities for what the classroom would include.
The courtyard garden has grown from its initial few raised beds, having added more raised beds aided by technology classes, all Newfield athletes and community build days. A raised bed herb garden is located right outside the independent living classroom, so those classes can make use of the fresh herbs when they are whipping something up in their kitchen. In addition to the herbs, the courtyard gardens also produce tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and kale.

Photo by Kristy Montana / Tompkins Weekly Newfield teacher Andrew Battles looks over the garden space.
Photo by Kristy Montana / Tompkins Weekly
Newfield teacher Andrew Battles looks over the garden space.

The “pool” garden has produced beets, cabbages, tomatoes, basil, tomatillos, peppers, lettuce and green beans. Animal intruders and the summer drought helped conspire to reduce the garden’s output this year, including lost squash and corn crops.
The proposed high tunnel would cover two rows of the garden space, using one-third of the tunnel space, with the remaining two-thirds of the tunnel covering solid ground that would allow for growing tables to be utilized to start plants during cold weather months.
“We’re going to be doing that because we’ve just about reached our goal,” said Battles, noting that the Newfield Education Fund is providing a matching $2,000 grant to help pay for the tunnel’s cost. “We’ll be putting a heating system in (the tunnel space) as well.
“It will allow for a longer growing season, and will allow us to get some of our produce into our cafeteria,” he added. “The best growing season is when no one is here, so adding the tunnel will allow us to grow when school is in session.”
Marge Strosnider, coordinator of Newfield Kitchen Cupboard, said the collaboration with the school project has meant healthier, fresh food for people who use the food pantry. She said the Newfield Kitchen Cupboard buys the majority of its food from the food bank and is able to get some produce, but the school’s garden offers a greater variety of fresh veggies.
“It’s wonderful for families to be able to come get tomatoes, squash, green peppers, kale, spinach; it’s such a variety that we can’t get from the food bank. Strosnider said. “For families to have access to this fresh food, it’s more healthy for them and it’s a nice change from canned vegetables and fruit.”
Battles said that during the past two years combined, the gardens have produced enough for food donations in excess of 600 pounds.
“It’s a sizable contribution that they make,” Strosnider said. “The kids bring the stuff over themselves; they come over with big smiles on their faces with produce in their hands.”
The Newfield Kitchen Cupboard is open from 6-7 p.m. the first and third Wednesdays of the month at the Newfield United Methodist Church, located at 227 Main St. in Newfield. It collects donations of fresh produce – not just from the school but also from those who have gardens in the community – in a cooler that is placed outside the church, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. every Wednesday.
The only information that is collected from people who come to the food pantry is the name and address of those benefiting from the program.
“We don’t require any proof of income,” said Strosnider, adding that an average of 70 families are served every two weeks “this time of year,” with more expected later in the fall and closer to the holidays. “There definitely is a need.”
On the off weeks, when the food pantry is not open, the Kitchen Cupboard brings food over to the senior housing complex, the Garden Apartments, to deliver the fresh food to residents there.
“We share everything we get,” Strosnider said of the produce received from the school and community gardeners. “
Chris Pierce, a senior at Newfield High School, spent a few days a week working, through a Workforce NY program, to maintain the gardens during the summer months.
“One reason was because I needed a summer job,” he said of why he wanted to work with the school’s gardens. “As time went on, I enjoyed it and found it to be a lot of fun.”
Pierce enjoyed being able to take the produce over to the Newfield Kitchen Cupboard.
“I like giving back to the community,” Pierce said of how it felt to take the fruits of the garden to the food pantry.
Though he won’t be working on the garden this school year, Pierce said he is hoping to volunteer some of his time to help maintain it.
“I will do my best to get some volunteer work in,” he said, and added that there wasn’t really anything he didn’t like about working on the garden. “I liked going through it and helping out. Sometimes the workload was a lot, but I just got done what I could get done.”
For Battles, the garden has meant a lot to him – something he didn’t realize would happen.
“This is something I never imagined being involved with, but Barry sold the project,” he said. “I’m really grateful being involved with the work, and I’m learning a lot.”
Battles noted the district has gotten a lot of support from Josh Dolan, food gardening outreach educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension, who had been coming out regularly in the past few years as the initiative has grown. He cited the community at large as playing a big part in the completion of the garden, with people coming through in finding fill for the “pool” garden space, delivering it and filling it in, and offering their elbow grease to do the work on the gardens.
“Every time we ran into an obstacle, we’ve gotten a lot of support from the community,” said Battles.
He’s counting on that support as the garden program continues to grow. As in years past – with the construction of the raised beds in the courtyard and the transformation of the pool area into a larger garden space – the school will be undertaking a community build day sometime in the spring to help with the next phase of the project.
“If people want to get involved – whether they want to help on the build day or they are gardeners who want to work with the kids in the summer – they can get a hold of me,” Battles said.
The best way to contact him is by email; his address is abattles@newfieldschools.org.
For more information about the garden project fundraiser visit www.generosity.com/education-fundraising/a-greenhouse-for-newfield-school-gardens.