Prior to 2011, the York FFA chapter had a garden project that was small, and quite a distance from the school, making student involvement difficult. But a lot has changed since that time.
Thanks in part to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP) awarded to the chapter six years ago, ag advisors Cal Williams and Jason Hirschfeld have seen their FFA members transform that garden into a thriving philanthropic project.
How thriving? Utilizing nearly a dozen raised-bed gardens now located on school grounds, the students produce 5,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables each year. The benefactors of those efforts – customers at the local farmers market, the York school cafeteria and area charitable organizations.
The York FFA project is one of several in Nebraska that has received funding from the SCBGP which is administered by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture (NDA). Since NDA began working with the USDA program in 2006, an estimated $3.92 million has been awarded to projects in the state.
NDA Ag Promotion Coordinator Casey Foster says the grant funds received by the York FFA chapter were used to purchase seed, gardening supplies and educational materials along with a tent and electronic scale for use at the farmers market. In addition, the funds also provided training opportunities for students and the two chapter advisors.
“So many kids in today’s world are two or more generations removed from the farm, so this is a great opportunity to keep our youth interested in, and excited about, agriculture,” says Foster.
He adds that the project also gives the students a chance to learn team-building, how to market their products and how to stick to a budget. And it’s also given the local farmers market a boost.
“Consumers are really interested in patronizing the produce stand run by the kids, just to give them support for their efforts,” Foster says, “As a result, the York chapter has had a couple of pretty successful years.”
The chapter is also now certified to accept Farmers Market Nutrition Program coupons which allows low income residents who are nutritionally at risk to purchase fresh, locally-grown produce.
Meanwhile, with some additional assistance from the Nebraska Center for Rural Affairs and a few years of experience under their belts, the York FFA chapter currently sells an estimated $1,500 worth of produce annually to its own school cafeteria. Those profits have allowed the chapter to offer limited scholarships to three or four students each year working as part of their Supervised Agricultural Experience.
The students have done such a good job with the garden they have been able to produce more vegetables than they can sell. But not to worry, all that is leftover is donated to local food pantries like the Living Water Mission in York and the People’s City Mission in Lincoln.
“The students have a sense of pride and accomplishment,” says co-chapter advisor Cal Williams, “They have an awareness of the number of people they can help.”
The 148 York FFA chapter members who have all been involved in the project in one way or another, are not only learning about gardening and running a business, they are also learning how to give back.
Williams notes one of his students put it best when she said, “We get to share it with other people.”