Playing In The Dirt

Date April 30, 2005 at 10:00 PM

Categories Local News & Sports

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Snap, snap-methodically my grandmother and I snapped the ends off the ripe green beans we had just picked from her garden. Thirty-five years later, I still smell their green, a green full of earth, sun, rain, laughter and hope. During the past few generations fewer and fewer urban children experience a bond with the land under their feet. Recently, however, programs have blossomed in New Mexico to introduce these children to the earth that everyone's ancestors-somewhere, sometime-farmed.

For older youth, the Indio-Hispano Academy of Agriculture Arts and Sciences (IHAAAS) offers one such program. IHAAAS Executive Director Felix Torres grew up as a farmer in the North Valley of Bernalillo County. "Food was a focal point,"€ he says. "We grew it, prepared it. It was an integral part of our upbringing."€

Torres offers a taste of his experience to IHAAAS' part-time student body, comprised of youth from the South Valley charter school system, the Navajo Nation in Arizona, and youth adjudicated to community service from Albuquerque Children's Court and the Isleta Pueblo juvenile system. These 15 to 20 year-olds farm 25 acres on the Isleta Pueblo. They maintain the acequia that zigzags through the field. They till soil, sow seeds, irrigate the field, and harvest crops of chile, blue corn, Anasazi beans and various vegetables. Then they sell the crops at the South Valley Growers' Market. As an incentive to work weekend markets, the youth share fifty percent of the sales profit.

Torres sees the program change the youth's sensibilities from those who are nurtured to those who nurture. "Many students will tell incoming students, "€˜take care of this, I planted this,'"€ says Torres. Moreover, students gain a sense of local cultural heritage by farming land that has been farmed for generations. In addition to the traditional farming, IHAAAS is developing a youth conservation corps for Bosque restoration and a water restoration program where students help maintain a hydroponic greenhouse.

While young adulthood is a vital time to connect to the land, several programs (many of which work together) focus on introducing young children to agriculture. The statewide program Kids, Kows and More (KKM), is organized through the Southwest Dairy Farmers and travels to cities around New Mexico.

"The garden is very, very important because it's a place where children can get their hands dirty and allow a seed to grow,"€ says Le Adams, co-director of Farm to Table and program director for the Farm to School program, which brings farmers into the classroom of Santa Fe and organizes field trips to farms and other food-related sites.

As one of several co-sponsors of KKM, Farm to Table recently hosted a vegetables and fruits learning station at a KKM event in Santa Fe. Over the course of the day, 500 fourth-graders passed through various stations absorbing facts about farming. At the Farm to Table station, they learned that vegetables have families (root, leaf, stem and flower) and friends (corn, beans and squash like to grow together, while beans and onions do not).

"You can teach anything in a garden,"€ says Adams, "not only science and mathematics. It's a great place to contemplate, to practice skills in literature, poetry, reading and writing."€ Gardens offer lessons in nurturing skills for youngsters as well. What a child plants and takes care of can be harvested, cooked and eaten-and seeds can be taken from some foods and planted the following year. "This is the way children can understand the cycle of life,"€ says Adams.

A third-grade and a fourth-grade class at Santa Fe's Gonzales Elementary School viscerally experience the life cycle through the program, Tendrils. Stewarded by Mollie Toll and Kathy Longwaters, Tendrils is in its second season.

"It's a school-year program,"€ says Longwaters. "The kids plant and grow things mainly during the time we'd consider to not be the growing season."€ Using cold frames-a type of mini greenhouse-in which to grow a variety of greens, the students harvested a plentiful December crop from their garden behind the school. Borrowing the classroom from a complementary program, Cooking with Kids, students sautéed spinach and char-and came back for seconds and thirds. The students had such a bountiful harvest that they donated a large produce basket to Kitchen Angels.

"So often we think we need lots of money to be able to do good, but here were kids with no jobs, no cars, no money, making a needed and useful contribution to their community,"€ says Longwaters. "It is a great self-esteem builder!"€

Guided by an ambitious curriculum, these nine and ten year olds learn about pollination, botany, chemical properties of soil, and water conservation-all while "playing"€ in the dirt. With the arrival of spring, they use the Pythagorean theorem to map out garden beds, then till the soil and sow the initial crops. The garden even entices some students away from recess to help Toll and Longwaters work. Fourth-grader Tiffany Herrera says, "We have learned how to plant peas and about the stuff you have to use to make the soil."€

"Sometimes manure,"€ interjects classmate Robert Duran.

"That's really gross,"€ continues Tiffany.

Fellow student Natalie Trouw says, "We made a compost cake. It was different layers. It had seaweed, watermelon, and hay."€

"Proportioned for nutrients,"€ adds Toll.

"It's not a very pleasant smell, just to warn you,"€ says Robert.

Walking beside rows of small green plants, Tiffany points out the similarity between cabbage and brussel sprout leaves. "If they look so much alike, they're related,"€ she says.

"Yes, they're both from the mustard family,"€ says Toll.

As the children explain how vines of peas will spiral around a bamboo frame eventually making a leafy, green tunnel through which they can crawl, Toll quietly mentions how cells on one side of the peas' stem grow faster than those on the other, which creates the spiral.

Toll says her greatest reward is to hear the children explaining the growth process themselves. And thus, the life cycle continues.

Whether any of these children make a career of farming only the future will unfold. However, through Tendrils and other farm programs, urban children are connecting to the land, and, in addition to the smell of the compost, they may discover their own, personal smell of green that will stay with them a lifetime.

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