by Terence P Ward
Nestled between the foothills of the Catskills and the profile of the Shawangunk Ridge lies the greatest concentration of farmland in Ulster County, the Rondout Valley, much of it worked by the same families for centuries. Thanks to the convergence of a number of innovative programs, students in the schools here are learning how—and why—they might want to continue that tradition. Administrators and board members have planted the seeds of an agriculture program, and it is starting to bear fruit.
Even in the depths of the Great Recession, when the Rondout Valley Central School District was forced to cut programs, lay off staff, and close a school, the idea was germinating in Superintendent Rosario Agostaro’s head. Like many rural districts, Rondout Valley had a shrinking student population, in part because it was becoming more difficult to find work and start a family here after graduation. Having grown up on a farm in Italy, Agostaro recognized that the Rondout region’s past in farming could also be its future. Despite having no money budgeted for new classes, he got an agriculture class approved for the curriculum. The following year, he got a part-time grant writer position into the budget, an employee he would train himself, and got to work finding the money.
The harvest from that seemingly barren earth has taken a few years, but Rondout Valley’s agriculture program is now ready to bloom. The next few years will see the final pieces coming together for a program that will allow students to learn about the entire food system, from when the first seeds are planted to the meals served in their own cafeterias, from field to tray. Much of that is made possible by a three-year $726,000 grant from the Local Economies Project, which is bolstered by member-item grants from two state senators and contributions by community members to make it possible for the kids to eat the same local produce that they’re learning to grow, market, and prepare.
“We received approval from the New York State Education Department for our greenhouse,” Agostaro said, which will be 30’x70’ and heated so that it can be used year-round for classes. The greenhouse may be ready for students as early as this autumn. “Hand in hand with [the greenhouse] are three new classes: plant science, agriculture business marketing, and agriculture business sales.” The greenhouse might also be used by SUNY Ulster faculty, as no similar facility exists on the community college’s Stone Ridge campus.
To help youngsters connect the dots between local farms and their own future, the district’s web site now has a new section devoted entirely to agriculture, including detailed descriptions of a number of careers in the field, laying out typical duties, projecting future demand for those careers, and listing what students must do in order to prepare for one.
Community involvement in these programs is high. An agricultural advisory committee, composed of farmers, restaurateurs, and other experts has been offering guidance on what should be happening in the classroom as the curriculum matures and the facilities are constructed. In addition to the greenhouse, a home economics classroom will be renovated into a food science classroom with committee input. Drawing upon the community is also crucial for the Farm to School Fund, brainchild of board president Breanna Costello. While she has long championed school gardens and local food, state procurement policies requiring public schools to seek low bids on comparable food products, make buying enough local produce to feed the student body all but impossible. However, donations to the Farm to School Fund, maintained by the Rondout Valley Education Foundation, can be used to buy local and close the food loop completely. Owing in part to the work of Congressman Chris Gibson, New York State is one of four in a federal pilot program to use local commodities monies to buy local food, and the superintendent hopes his district will be selected for that program, as well.
Even as the classrooms become more agri-friendly, Agostaro is trying to find more ways to get students outdoors. Part of the LEP and other grants will be used to build an interpretive education trail with areas suitable to conduct classes outside. The trails were designed locally, as was the logo for the school’s agriculture program, which was created by then-student Iris Jones.
According to Brooke Pickering-Cole of LEP, this is a new way for the project to fund programs. “We hope it will become a model for others,” she said. “This is just our start.”