For Rayford Campbell, the first ever EarthDance + Ferguson-Florissant School District Agri-Culinary Program was a learning experience like no other. Along with four other students from Innovation School at Cool Valley, Rayford spent eight weeks – two mornings per week – at the farm this spring, working and learning. Rayford enjoyed making herbal tea from plants on the farm – stinging nettle mixed with mint was his favorite, working with the chickens on a field trip visit to another North St. Louis County farm, Rustic Roots Sanctuary – even participating in clipping the chickens’ wings that day, and he may use some of his garden-grown jalapenos to cook a meal for his family. Working together at the farm with his classmates, as well as with Farm-to-School Coordinator Tara Blanchard, Managing Director Tiffany Brewer, and the farm team, Rayford participated in experiential learning about food and farming at EarthDance.
For more than 14 years, EarthDance has been working with people of all ages who want to learn how to grow food. Funded by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Farm to School Planning Grant, EarthDance and FFSD team members have developed a comprehensive farm-to-school program over the course of the past two years – a key piece being the Agri-Culinary Internship Program. The purpose of the program is to help connect students with the land, with each other, and with the farming community, improving access to fresh, organic produce through hands-on experiences in farming and restaurant settings. According to EarthDance Managing Director Tiffany Brewer, the collaboration could not have happened without Innovation Principal, Sheila Carves, who has been supportive every step of the way; Elizabeth Nelson, Innovation’s Learning Through Internship (LTI) coordinator; and Chef/Farmers Matthew Raiford and Tia McDonald, who were contracted to develop the course curriculum and were part of the planning team.
The students were able to choose the Agri-Culinary internship based on their desired career paths or interests, from a variety of options offered through Innovation. Some of the five participants in this inaugural cohort learned of the program during their service learning projects in the fall of 2021, when Innovation School ninth grade advisor Mark Sauer brought a group of 10-12 students to the farm once a week for eight weeks; Rayford was one of those students. EarthDance F2S coordinator Tara also made visits to Innovation in the fall to recruit participants. And, at least one of the students learned about it from a participating friend who invited them to join.
During his internship, not only did Rayford grow his first jalapeno plant, he also built a quick composting bio-reactor, helped build a vegetable garden at his school, and solidified friendships with fellow farmie-foodie friends who will move together into their sophomore year at Innovation High School at Cool Valley in the fall.
Rayford built a functional bio-reactor. But he kept forgetting to bring food scraps to compost! Thankfully, another friend in the program, Kaidyn, helped out by bringing lunch leftovers. And the compost, though a small amount, is useful on the farm!
He also found a new life goal: Rayford, who wants to become an aerospace engineer, now wants to take plants to space. And, now he knows how to compost them to continue to generate nutritious food-growing fodder where soil might be in short supply! He is thankful for this experience at the farm.
Lessons learned: “The main one was patience. Working at the farm and growing things teaches you that not everything will come to you just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “It takes time to grow food and for it to return to the earth.”
Would Rayford recommend the program to other students? Yes! He plans to return to the program in the fall. He’d like to build an improved version of the bio-reactor.