ATASCADERO — The Atascadero Unified School District (AUSD) has been working to provide their grade-school-age students the same kind of agricultural and land stewardship experience available in the higher grades, or indeed to San Luis Coastal students attending classes with ties to San Luis Obispo’s City Farm, south of the Cuesta grade.
Last year the AUSD formalized a partnership with Brandon Sanders, owner of Templeton-based Robin Song Farms, to assist in developing a District Farm at the AUSD’s San Benito Elementary School property.
Formerly of the Sonoma Student Growers' Cooperative, Sanders told the AUSD Board of Trustees about his experience with food service and recently, coordinating with teachers to enhance the curriculum with workday visits to the property.
Currently working on two acres of crops on the land, he gave them a status update on efforts to channel a slow build-up of vegetables to the school’s kitchen without swamping kitchen staff at the first harvest.
Sanders’ mission with Robin Song Farms is to, “produce high quality produce (fruit, vegetables, grains, and dry beans) without the use of synthetic substances, such as pesticides, modern fertilizers, and plastics,” he notes on social media.
“It’s been a tough start to spring so far,” he said at the regular May 7 meeting of the Board, noting setbacks with pest infestations of greenhouses and unexpected buried rubble in fields, he was upbeat, “we’re starting small but manageable so that we don’t overwhelm staff with food in Fall.”
As the San Benito Elementary School project is a pilot program designed to grow into an “AUSD farm experience,” for elementary students noted Superintendent Tom Butler’s cursory report.
Therefore one of the things he hopes to show students is just how much one can get done in a limited time with the right tools. He made reference to, if not labor saving, at least effect multipliers used in clearing fields and being ingenuitive where able. Some simple solutions students were able to help with, like filling sandbags or assembling miniature hoop houses to shield lettuce from the elements.
He hopes to have the same class who helped put in radishes come out again for their harvest in a few weeks time.
However, some challenges, such as caterpillars in the greenhouse and weeds getting a head start on crops after a wet year, required solutions without children present. he showed the trustees photos of himself using an agricultural flamethrower — more mundane than it sounds with low propane heat — to burn of weeds with carrot seeds already in the ground.
It was worth noting, as Sanders splits time between actually managing the land within a shoe-strapped budget, and working with teachers for curriculum, that items such as school generated compost and other assets one might expect to go to the property are already spoken for with smaller gardens and existing projects.
Trustees did have some ideas of their own though, offering the possibility of community connections to call on some heavy equipment to remove concrete debris and other unexpected impediments found.
A more comprehensive review will be possible in nine months time, Butler said he expected.
For now, melons are being prepared with a greenhouse start for a September harvest.