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In Portsmouth: A farm of their own

Middle school students will work the soil in their own gardens at Cloverbud Ranch

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PORTSMOUTH — While school buildings were closed and learning moved online, a group of 25 children — some as young as 10 — were working on more than just their ABCs. These kids were also quietly dreaming up, designing and starting to build their own little farm on Jepson Lane, just a half a mile from their school.

Called the Portsmouth Ag Innovation Farm (the “Ag” is for agriculture), it’s starting out with two acres at the top of the 100-plus acre Cloverbud Ranch, which was founded more than three years ago by Martin Beck of New England Grass Fed. Mr. Beck leased the former Van Hof Nurseries property for his beef business, and also assembled a collaborative farm co-op of like-minded artisan farm producers.

According to Margie Brennan, the school district’s K-8 science coach who helped students get the project off the ground, Mr. Beck “gifted” six acres in total for the project, so there’s room for expansion.

The idea first took root in February, when Sara Churgin, district manager of the Eastern R.I. Conservation District (ERICD), reached out to Mrs. Brennan about establishing a school garden at Portsmouth Middle School. Ms. Churgin was a familiar face, as she had already helped establish a rain garden as part of an outdoor classroom at Melville School. João Arruda, the school principal, was also eager to see students get their hands dirty.

“When I came aboard as science coach, he said we have to do something outside. He is passionate about getting the kids outside and doing gardening and agriculture,” said Mrs. Brennan, who’s spent 20 years in education, previously as a middle school science teacher. 

Since she was on a committee that was exploring major building design changes at the school, Mrs. Brennan wasn’t sure if she could commit to any land that may be needed for a future expansion. Nevertheless, she invited Ms. Churgin in for a meeting.

“As she was driving in, Martin Beck called her and said he had some land he wanted to put to good use,” she said.

With a site now guaranteed, the two women and about two dozen students got down to work. Mrs. Brennan and Ms. Churgin visited places such as the Barrington Farm School and The Compass School for ideas, while a group of fifth- and seventh-graders started meeting online after school to brainstorm what they wanted to see at their farm.

“We were doing some virtual meetings to plan out everything we were going to do with the space that we have, like the irrigation system, what plants would be the best to grow, and stuff like that,” said 11-year-old Elle McFadden, who was at the farm Monday to water plants that students and parents had already put in the ground. “Since it was going to be near the summertime, we chose plants that wouldn’t need a lot of water and could survive in the dry weather, like tomatoes, squash and pumpkins.”

She was there Monday along with Bella Barner, who’s going into the eighth grade, and sixth-graders Tatum Brennan (Mrs. Brennan’s daughter), Aurelius Brockman and Charlotte Olsen. (Charlotte’s not part of the club, but she slept over at the Brennans the night before so they put her to work.)

“I think it’s really fun because I like to go out here and start something from scratch,” said Aurelius, adding he has no idea how long it will take to get the farm ready. “It takes as long as it takes.”

Big plans

The students’ patch of farm may not look like much now, but they have big plans which came together during those after-school Zoom meetings.

“I put them in breakout groups and they had to go research,” said Mrs. Brennan. “We created a budget on an Excel spreadsheet and they had to go look up the prices. I told them if we buy anything it had to be all local, from people on the island. So it was all about how the planning process worked. As my daughter said, it was very boring at times, but this (coming out to the farm) is what they’re excited to do.”

Phase One of the project calls for four quadrants of gardens, with two for the school and two that will be covered with tarp and later used for family garden plots.

“The kids are going to teach families how to run a sustainable garden, and that also means learning about what crops grow when, what crops complement each other, and how to keep the soil nutritious,” said Ms. Brennan, who also envisions 4-H groups, the Portsmouth High School Green Club and other island groups to eventually get involved with the project. Her students are also learning about composting from Clean Ocean Access, and plan to bring some school lunchroom waste to the farm for that purpose.

Students have also received permission to use Cloverbud’s retail shed at the top of the property — just a short walk away from the school gardens — for future farmers’ markets.

Much of the food students are growing will be donated. “We’ve already contacted St. Mary’s (Church) food pantry. One of the women there is on our new advisory board that we’re just creating. A third of what we grow will go to the food pantry, and the rest the kids will learn how to garden, and they’ll learn about garden to table.”

If all goes to plan, the site will also feature a 16x20-foot classroom shed, a path for a small driving cart, an outdoor classroom with a pavilion and picnic table where visitors can relax with coffee, a pollinator trail on the east side, sunflower and pumpkin patches, chicken coops and trees and shrubs for wind protection.

“The kids also researched a high tunnel, which is a greenhouse. So we’re going to put a high tunnel on the property,” Mrs. Brennan said.

Donations, grants needed

To make it all happen, however, the Portsmouth Ag Innovation Farm needs grants and donations of cash or supplies; Mrs. Brennan estimates it will cost $66,000 for the first phase of the project. The sprinkler system they started setting up Monday came out of her own pocket while she awaits the arrival of the club’s first successful grant — $500 from the Grassroots Grant.

“We’ve written eight grants right now,” she said, adding the club hopes to raise enough to also pay Eric Camara, who graduated from PHS last month and will study environmental science at Bristol Community College. 

 “He wants to be a farmer; he already owns a 100 chickens and has had his own egg business since he was 9,” Mrs. Brennan said, adding that Mr. Camara works part-time helping Mr. Beck with his livestock.

She’s already witnessed displays of generosity and kindness from the community in support of the project.

“I went to Home Depot with a request for deer fencing — thinking it would take a month or so — and they handed me half the supplies I needed for free and just said, ‘Take it and go,’” Mrs. Brennan said, adding one man mowed the land and a Tiverton farmer also initially tilled the gardens at no charge.

But that will be the only time the land is tilled, she said, as her students advised against it after doing their own research. “You’re not supposed to till, the kids told me. It ruins the organisms that live beneath the soil that gives the soil the nutrients it needs,” she said.

That example shows how much students have taken the project on as their own, she said. These current club members — and the other students who will later join the project — are true “ambassadors” of the farm, which she hopes will be in full operation by December 2021.

“They own it now. It’s theirs, it’s not mine. My job is strictly to facilitate,” said Mrs. Brennan. “We’ve got a lot to do, but I have full faith. If we fail, we fail. But at least they’ll have learned something.”

For more information and updates about the farm, as well as links to make donations, visit its Facebook page at PortsmouthAgInnovationFarm.

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