Deborah Ray, amongst all the closures and quarantines, had a vision. As a farm producer and educator with Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement (IDEA) Edgemere Academy and College Preparatory, Ray was given the opportunity to launch the first ever IDEA Farm in the El Paso Region.
The year 2020 was not for the faint of heart.
Deborah Ray, amongst all the closures and quarantines, had a vision. As a farm producer and educator with Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement (IDEA) Edgemere Academy and College Preparatory, Ray was given the opportunity to launch the first ever IDEA Farm in the El Paso Region at IDEA Edgemere.
The project launched with Ray’s determination and the support of the IDEA Child Nutrition Program, along with assistance of state and federal programs, agencies, and grants. Ray enlisted the help of local organizations and contractors while working with the students from pre-kindergarten through 7th grade on campus to plant, nurture, harvest and package fruits and vegetables. The fresh produce was used to enhance the nutritional value of school lunches at the campus.
Preparing the designated farm area for fruitful cultivation presented numerous challenges to Ray and the staff. A barren, West Texas desert stood before them without even a weed growing in their field of dreams.
With visions of vegetable rows, fruit trees, gazebos, walking paths and more, they broke ground. Rock removal, soil sifting, additions of compost and perimeter fencing all required long days of work.
“We’ve had rain lately so there are some weeds that need to be picked,” Ray said. “All things considered, from where things started, I’ll take the weeds as a compliment.”
After arduous hours of hard work, the excavation and construction were complete, and Ray was able to move forward with planting and design.
The next steps included enlisting the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) personnel and Maggie Gannon, NRCS urban conservationist, to assist with the project.
“We were able to utilize the programs available through our Urban Conservation Initiative in adding a high tunnel, pollinator habitat and roof runoff system to the project in 2021,” Gannon said.
Ray shared that these projects added both aesthetic and ecological value to the farm.
In the arid, high-altitude climate of the region, the high tunnel helps extend the growing season that accommodates the school schedule and student availability. Noah Earle, the farmer for IDEA Edgemere, in El Paso, Texas, expressed how the rainwater harvest system has been a lifesaver for maintaining the farm by providing water for the crops. Most recently, local construction has caused municipal water sources to be shut-off for extended periods of time limiting availability.
“They (the students) are a part of facilitating the growth of what they see on the plate from seed to harvest,” said Maggie Gannon. “This farm encourages the students to see the full circle effect of healthy eating.”
Students participate by having designated field time as part of their curriculum, which includes options such as a Junior Master Gardner certification course.
The Rise Special Education Program teachers and students have assisted with the construction of scarecrows for the farm fields and caring for the pollinator garden. It is an all-inclusive, hands-on educational opportunity with ambitious goals.
Ray said although there are multiple IDEA schools from West Texas to the Rio Grande Valley, Texas, and in Baton Rouge, La., and Tampa Bay, Fla., not all of them have farms. She said she hopes to continue expanding farm projects within the IDEA Public Schools, like the one at Edgemere, to grow and distribute fruits and vegetables to other IDEA schools. Thus, keeping the students as benefactors of their own success.
For more information about this initiative visit the Farm - IDEA Public Schools https:/ideapublicschools.org/farm/ website. For more information about urban agriculture and how the USDA NRCS can help, visit www.tx.nrcs.usda.gov or contact Maggie Gannon, urban conservationist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.