Curriculum rooted in Sharon’s gardening program connects students with the food needs of the community

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Sharon Academy student Evan Hastings, 15, cuts tomato plants while preparing the Food Justice Garden in Sharon, Vt., for winter on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022. Hastings took an elective course in a month on regenerative agriculture and the history of Indigenous lands and climate justice taught at the academy by Karen Ganey, of Regeneration Corps. Photo by James M. Patterson/Valley News

This story by Frances Mize first appeared in the Valley News on November 11.

SHARON — When fall was as hot as summer, Oli Shipman brushed the dirt off potatoes she harvested from a community garden on Route 14, preparing them for delivery to the Sharon’s food shelf.

She also made salsa for the food shelf, from the tomatoes and peppers that had ripened on green vines during the growing season.

On Monday, as the cold wind blew across the low, flat ground just across the White River, Shipman, a 10th grader at Sharon Academy, was back to work in the garden. Covering the paths between the flower beds with mulch to keep the grass from spreading in the winter, Shipman was putting the garden to bed.

The Sharon Food Justice Garden, which is maintained and operated primarily by students enrolled in an elective course at the TSA, is a project of Regeneration Corps – a collaboration between Vermont high school students and representatives of various nonprofit organizations , including Vital Communities, Building a Local Economy (BALE) and rural Vermont.

The group hopes to foster students’ “practical and regenerative land-based skills”, an agricultural and ecological knowledge base, and community organizing experience.

“We have this framework where we really hope to change the way education is delivered, making it more experiential and solution-oriented,” said Karen Ganey, a Regenerative Corps educator who taught the ASD class.

The program combined teachings about the history of Indigenous lands and climate justice, which hopes to shift from fossil fuels and large-scale agriculture in a racially equitable way, to regenerative farming techniques – like no-till agriculture and cover cropping. The methods aim to keep agricultural soils healthy, rather than depleting them of nutrients during extractive growing seasons.

“We give children the opportunity to learn real skills in the field, working in the gardens of farms, because we recognize and know that industrial agriculture is one of the main contributors to climate change,” said Ganey. “But his backhand is also where a lot of the solutions are.”

Sharon Food Shelf volunteer Cameron Speth, left, greets Alden, of Youth Empowerment and Action, middle, and Jasper Erhard, of Strafford, as they deliver the day’s harvest from the Food Justice Garden in Sharon, Vermont, Wednesday, August 24, 2022 Volunteers harvested and donated 150 pounds of produce to the food shelf this growing season. Photo by James M. Patterson/Valley News

Through Flexible Pathways, a Vermont educational initiative that gives students credit for personalized educational opportunities, the Regeneration Corps class could easily be integrated into students’ existing schedules at school.

Shipman found her way to the garden through Youth Empowerment and Action, a Tunbridge and Sharon-based teen advocacy group focused on climate solutions through sustainable agriculture. Beyond TSA’s choice, the Sharon Garden has become a touchstone for area teens and adults interested in regenerative agriculture as a way to fight climate change.

“I think it’s an interesting concept and nobody really talks about it,” Shipman said.

The garden itself, which is the practical basis for what the course teaches in the classroom, was started last summer with a $5,400 grant from the New England Grass Roots Environment Fund. This enabled the group to purchase the materials needed to grow over 150 pounds of food for the Sharon Food Shelf.

Sharon’s Oli Shipman, center, Dan “Rudi” Rudell, second from right, and Sharon Academy Middle School math teacher Linda Jagoda, right, lay cardboard in the walking paths of the Food Justice Garden in Sharon, Vermont, while preparing the plot for winter on Monday, November 7, 2022. The cardboard was covered with wood shavings to keep grass and weeds from growing. From left to right are volunteer Avery Mornis, Regeneration Corps facilitator Karen Gainey and Alden of Youth Empowerment and Action. Photo by James M. Patterson/Valley News

At the core of Regeneration Corps’ mission is to address the challenges and “enrich the lives” of “youth, teachers and farmers during the pandemic (COVID-19)”. Through choice, students learn best practices, but they also gain practical skills and get time outside of the classroom.

“Our goal is not to overwhelm them,” Ganey said. “Some of these students are just coming out of the pandemic and have been home for a long time and are exploring their identity.”

She stressed that an essential part of the curriculum in the garden is the opportunity to hone skills and explore passions, while connecting to “place and purpose”.

“I think it’s really helpful for kids to have that sense of possibility and connections to real solutions,” Ganey said, adding that a student told him he felt “climate desperation.”

Even on the cold, gray days, as summer gave way to fall, Sharon Academy students emerged from the minibus they were taking from school to the garden, ready to get their hands dirty.

Alden harvests tomatoes to donate to the Sharon Food Shelf at the Food Justice Garden in Sharon, Vermont on Wednesday, August 24, 2022. The garden was planted in the spring by Sharon Academy students and tended all summer on the days of weekly work by Alden, Ganey and some volunteers. Photo by James M. Patterson/Valley News

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