County supervisors, School Board members and the Rural Economic Development Commission are hoping to do more to bring the farm to the classroom—even if that classroom is the suburbs.
Although it might be hard to tell standing in Sterling, South Riding or Data Center Alley, Loudoun is a statewide leader in agriculture, especially when it comes to wine grapes, honey, equine activities, alpacas and llamas, and farmers who are women or minorities. And that farming heritage has a long history in Loudoun education, too—the first agricultural school in Virginia was the Loudoun Agricultural and Mechanical Institute, established on President James Monroe’s Oak Hill plantation near Aldie in the mid-1800s.
That tradition is carried on today at the Academies of Loudoun, which includes agriculture courses among its offerings and hosts the county’s only remaining chapter of Future Farmers of America. It is also reflected in schools across the county, through the Department of Extension Services, school gardens, students spending time working with farmers, and lessons like the embryology program, which sees elementary schoolers across the county hatch and raise a chicken.
The egg hatching lesson particularly is a hit.
“I think almost all the schools that I’ve been to have been a part of the chick growing, and the kids absolutely love it,” said Supervisor Sylvia R. Glass (D-Broad Run), who co-chairs the Joint Board of Supervisors and School Board Committee and is an elementary school special education teacher’s assistant. “Every time they go by they’re quiet. They want to make sure once the chicks have hatched that they are careful around them. They want to hold them and touch them, and are really excited about them.”
School Board member Denise Corbo (At Large), a former elementary teacher, agreed.
But elected leaders now want to know how they can do more, all across the county.
“We’ve traditionally focused on production agriculture that looks like broad acre agriculture, but as the population of Loudoun changes and our learning needs change, so do we, and we adapt, and so a lot of our work involves hydroponic systems and aquaponic systema and container gardening for balconies,” said Department of Extension Services Director Stuart Vermaak. “We have programs where students can learn about growing things and then take a container home and grow something on their balcony, something that is culturally specific that they might be interested in. We have the ability to tailor these things to the school and the environment, and make that education applicable.”
And although the schools already buy some food from local farmers, Vermaak said one way to get the lesson to kids is through their stomachs.
“When we can integrate more locally, truly locally-grown produce, meats, whatever it is, kids have this understanding where their food comes from, and it’s not from Food Lion,” he said. “It is a food literacy effort.”
Agricultural education also can face hurdles in the county, especially around staffing. There is a specific teaching endorsement for agricultural education, and unlike classes, farmers don’t get a summer break. That can be reflected in school garden programs that can falter over the summer.
“We had very good intentions and beautiful gardens going, but once the summer months come by, we might have like one person that’s in charge of it, so it’s pretty hard,” Glass said.
Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian) suggested a funding a partnership with the county Parks and Recreation department to take care of the gardens over the summer.
“A lot of people just don’t have the time to volunteer for something like that consistently over the summer,” she said.
Similarly, some School Board members discussed a stipend or incentives for teachers to get certified for and more involved in agriculture education.
“Every elementary school received hydroponic systems, and they are incredible, but most of them are sitting in a closet because no one at the school is responsible for them,” Corbo said. “…They were a great gift to many of our elementary schools, but they’re not being utilized because of that lack, again, of that manpower.”
And School Board Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) said those kinds of lessons can be part of students’ broader education.
“I don’t think it has to happen in a specific course necessarily. It can happen in specific lessons,” Morse said.
School Board members and supervisors plan to talk more about how to bring agriculture into the classroom at their next joint committee meeting in April, where they will be joined by the county’s Rural Economic Development Council.