Clarke Alumna, Tara Norman, always cherished her life on the farm. The rewards of hard work in tending animals and growing sustainable produce showed her a life many students don’t get to see these days. So when she returned to Clarke to teach at the elementary she quickly found, through the Leader In Me program, the opportunity to bring the educational value of agriculture to her students. After just a couple years of Ag Club with participants from 2nd grade through 5th grade, she and the students had a vision of growing the program (pun intended) into something bigger. But they need a little help to really make a difference.
From the outset, the program quickly flourished, integrating hands-on opportunities for the “Aggies” to take part in science, math, technology, engineering, and economics concepts.
“We had so much early interest in the club that we couldn’t take all of the students in one group,” said Miss Norman. “The kids were realizing the diversity and joy of agriculture and how it impacted the lives of everyone around them. They wanted everyone to experience it.”
In 2019, Miss Norman won the “Excellence in Teaching About Agriculture Award” presented by the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation. With that came $500 she quickly turned back in to the Clarke Ag-education program with the intention of supporting their efforts. But the kids’ plans went even further.
In the Spring of 2020, with construction equipment and temporary classrooms removed from campus, Norman and the students were able to commandeer a full acre of ground where they can expand the program, eventually hoping to integrate a greenhouse, chicken coop, and an outdoor growing area as the Clarke Elementary Agriculture Outdoor Learning Area.
“We wanted to make the ag experience something we could share beyond the club,” said Norman. “So the kids and I decided to really aim high.”
With the approval of district administration, Miss Norman started applying for grants to acquire the equipment needed for an innovative Hydroponic growing system the students could use for a variety of produce. From lettuce and spinach to strawberries, bell peppers and herbs, the students could use the hydroponic system to take part in a fully-integrated agricultural “Farm-to-Table” process. Beyond classroom planting, reading or watching videos, the students could learn, first-hand, how produce reaches their dinner tables.
A grant application, sent to the Clarke County Development Corporation (CCDC), was received in mid-December and was quickly approved, giving the program a substantial boost of $1,000.
“The program Miss Norman and the students proposed is really part of what we need to be focused on these days,” said Bill Trickey, CCDC Executive Director. “Understanding the values of our ag economy and how to be more self-sustaining will be valuable community assets far into the future.”
With momentum on their side, Miss Norman and her “Aggies” have started the process of integrating their first Hydroponic tower at the Elementary and look to add up to three more in the future. By having multiple units, the students hope to have a continuous-cycle of production to grow produce, supporting the cafeteria as well as donating healthy options to the food bank.
“This was all on the kids,” said Norman. “They even thought up the idea of selling chef salads using eggs from chickens we hatched, our lettuce and more, and then selling them to teachers for lunches! That’s entrepreneurial thinking.”
While the grant process is in action, the program still needs funding and support to get to a sustainable production level. More Hydroponic towers, LED lighting, and additional equipment will be needed to support their program. Miss Norman was emphatic about the kids’ commitment and drive and hopes the community can come together to help.