By Pam Dudding, Contributing Writer
For quite some time, Craig County Schools have been wishing for a Land Lab to be built on their vacant property. Finally, their wishes are coming true.
Because of community support, there is action on the property now.
John and Mary Hunter have taken the project “by the reins” and are helping to spearhead its phases, along with the new Agriculture teacher, Emily Nolin, and the Ben Flinchum Agriculture Shop teacher.
“We’re just here to help coordinate, ask for donations, and assist in any way possible to keep things moving forward,” they said. “Any work we do would be on behalf of Craig County Farm Bureau and the Farm Bureau Women’s Leadership Committee.”
Both groups have always taken a very active role in encouraging previous superintendents of the school system to first reinstate the Ag program into their curriculum and then encouraged them to keep the program.
Added the Hunters, “We have been very fortunate that Jeanette Warwick has been a huge supporter of the Ag program and has helped to get the curriculum to where it is ready for a land lab to be established so that the students can have hands-on learning opportunities as part of their ag curriculum.”
At the September School Board meeting, John and Mary gave a detailed report on the “wish-list” as well as the long-awaited news that work is actually being accomplished.
Though Nolen could not attend due to illness, the Hunter’s reported for her.
She later shared, “I am beyond excited to share my passion for agriculture. At their age, I found myself focusing on how I wanted to create an impact within the industry, whether it be through the FFA, the family farm, personal livestock production or reading on a subject. I hope that through my personal experience and passion, I can provide these students the opportunity to find their spark in agriculture. The agriculture industry fuels the world and it’s important that students understand the importance of an industry that is oftentimes forgotten.”
Nolen currently has 35 students that want to be in the FFA program.
“We have known Emily since she was a little bitty kid,” Mary said. “Once she was hired here, she was telling us about her opportunity to fill the Land Lab vision. We were happy to work with her and lead her in directions to people who could support her in ways to bring in some funds to support the program.”
Mary is co-chair of the Craig County Farm Bureau Women’s Leadership Program. She, along with her husband, are on the Board of Directors for the Craig County Farm Bureau.
“We promote Agriculture Education every year and have fundraisers to do Ag programs in the community and provide scholarships for graduating seniors,” Mary added. “All the money that we raise goes right back into our community, helping to raise the awareness of the needs of agriculture.”
They reported that Nolin and Samuel Foster had discussed ways to use the Land Lab – a shed for food and supplies, animal handling facility and show ring for the students. Also, a place where FFA and 4-H could practice grooming, clipping, haltering, and showing and completion of their livestock evaluation curriculum, a cattle working facility and barns where students could care for about four calves each year as well as a crop garden area and small raised beds that various classrooms can use and a butterfly garden.
“A project of this type is very expensive, and we have received some support from the community,” Mary said. “We do need volunteers to help us work, we need donations and people to help with fundraisers.”
John knows the Ag teacher, Stuart, in Botetourt, so they took Emily to visit their Land Lab as the acreage is similar in size to what CCPS has.
“With her being a new teacher, he was great about giving insights on what we are to plan for, what to expect, how to get started in the right direction, the whole shebang,” John reported. “It was very impressive as what they were able to do on such a small scale, the same size area as we have here.”
“She was so excited she said that her head was just spinning, as it’s going in 20 different directions of things I want to do and things that I can do,” Mary said.
John added, “The kids go out and water the animals faithfully every day. They have sign-up sheets and if they don’t do it, they get reprimanded by the other kids. They do their own feeding with hay and grain. They do this seven days a week, including Saturdays and Sundays and holidays, and fight over who gets to feed them.”
Currently, Nolen is working on Phase I of the project which is building of the fence.
The Hunter’s reported that they were able to get enough wire and posts to build the entire fence with donations from Giles Farm Bureau Cooperative (five rolls of woven wire donated), Pembroke farmer George Atkins (another roll of wire and 25 fence posts donated) as well as an anonymous cash donation received from a farmer in Botetourt County after they spoke about the land lab at a Cattlemen’s Association picnic.
The Craig County Farm Bureau Women’s Leadership Committee has provided financial support of the Ag programs at the school for many years. They were asked if they could purchase more posts to go with one’s they had purchased years ago for the land lab but hadn’t been used yet. They agreed. Rockingham Cooperative allowed them to purchase the posts at their cost at a significant discount.
Richard Brown agreed to bring his equipment and drive the fence posts, with the help of community volunteers.
Completion of Phase I will allow livestock (up to four steers or heifers each year) into the facility, assisting the students towards their evaluation curriculum.
Once the posts are set, both Nolen and Flinchum’s Ag classes will be able to start building the fence with help from the community.
John also added that he is working on getting a wagon train to place the portable chicken coop on in hopes to have it ready in the next few weeks so the students can begin raising chickens. In the spring, they will start their garden.
“Students will be involved in this process the entire project with lots of hands-on activity,” they noted.
Nolin and Flinchum are both developing training and safety programs for the students. They will complete their training before being allowed to go on a task, like building fences.
Flinchum will have his students build the barns that will be needed to house the animals, tools and equipment.
Nolin has created a Craig County Land Lab Facebook page for the community to keep up with the progress and needs.
Any in-kind items would be greatly appreciated for the Land Lab such as gates, corral panels, water and feed troughs, wiring, lights, a squeeze chute, staples, brace wire, brace pins, fence pliers, gloves, safety glasses in addition to any supplies for fence and shed building and housing animals.
Volunteer labor is needed, especially for driving fence posts, which is one of the few things the students are not allowed to do.
To assist the Land Lab, the Women’s Leadership Program will be selling raffle tickets for a quilt at the Fall Festival.
The Crosswhites on Johns’ Creek are also donating shale to use to establish a good ground base for the handling facilities. Volunteers are needed to haul that too.
“There’s been a lot of progress since the last time it was mentioned,” Chairman Trace Bellassai said.
“I am more than excited,” Warwick said.
“We are happy to take donations of items that are in good working condition from your farms that you no longer need as well as cash contributions that can be used to purchase items that we cannot get donated,” both shared.
All cash donations are tax-deductible. The school can give you a receipt. Cash or checks can be delivered to the school board office or mailed to Craig County Public Schools, 6 Alleghany Circle, New Castle, VA 24127. Checks should be made payable to Craig County Schools with “land lab” written in the memo section or on a note, as a separate account has been set up.
For items one would like to donate, they can contact John Hunter at 540-309-2526. If people wish to be added to the volunteer list to be notified of times when they need assistance, they should email Mary Hunter at [email protected].
“Be sure to follow us on Facebook at Craig County Land Lab,” Nolen said. “We will be posting dates of planned projects and when we need volunteers to help out.”
“I just want to put emphasis on allowing community partnership, as I think it is important that families and community members get to recognize the impact that hands-on learning provides to students,” she added. “This is where community engagement becomes involved. Please reach out if you would like to donate materials or money to the Land Lab, plan an event pertaining to the land lab, or help build this awesome facility.”