SHERIDAN – The Sheridan Intermediate School Garden, which doubles as a lab and a source of food for the school cafeteria, has been named the overall winner in the 2018 Arkansas School Garden of the Year Contest.

The winners were announced by the Arkansas Agriculture Department and Farm Credit of Arkansas. Other winners include:

Best Nutrition Education-Based School Garden: Bayyari Elementary, Springdale.

Best Environmental-Based Education School Garden: Perryville Elementary, Perryville.

Best Community Collaboration School Garden: Carolyn Lewis in Conway.

Best School Garden Start-Up Proposal: Central Elementary School in Van Buren.

The Overall School Garden Winner receives $1,000, and the winning schools in the remaining categories will receive $500 each. Monetary awards are provided by Farm Credit.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson recognized winning schools during a special ceremony Oct. 10 at the Arkansas State Capitol at Little Rock.

Led by husband-wife partnership

The Sheridan garden is the product of a husband-wife partnership. Serena McGinley is a fifth-grade math/science teacher. Her husband, Brad McGinley, is Grant County extension staff chair for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

“Our school garden engages the students in learning science concepts, nutrition education, and agriculture practices,” said Serena McGinley.

“Students love working in the garden!” she said. “They gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of where their food comes from and the work that goes into it. Students are more willing to try the food from our garden because they have ownership in it — they grew it! Our garden has and continues to bring joy and a sense of pride to our school.”

“We established this garden in 2015. It’s a joint venture with the intermediate school where my wife, Serena, teaches fifth grade,” Brad McGinley said. “We tag-team this project.”

Conducting variety trials

In the growing season that led to the award, the garden’s eight 4-foot by 8-foot beds served as a laboratory, enabling students to apply what they learned about the scientific method.

“We used the garden to conduct a strawberry variety trail,” McGinley said.

The Cooperative Extension Service conducts variety trials in several crops, determining how the plants fare under certain growing conditions.

“We had four different varieties, and the kids did all the work,” he said. “They picked the berries, weighed the berries, culled them, looked for spider mites and applied the scientific method all the way through.”

In addition, being in the garden helped teach them the value of work. Some other fruits of their labor are being shared among their classmates. On Oct. 19, the garden’s sweet potatoes will be feeding the whole campus – about 700 students.

“Not everyone likes sweet potatoes and we want them to have a good experience,” which is why they’ll be served up with both caramel and marshmallow sauce,” McGinley said.

The potatoes are planted by the fifth graders in May and harvested when they come back as sixth graders in the fall.

Partners in the project

The garden is also helped along by the county’s Master Gardeners, who built it and help maintain it when school is out, and is funded in part by the Grant County Conservation District.

“We greatly appreciate all our other partners for their crucial role in helping our district establish and maintain two school gardens,” Jerrod Williams, Sheridan School District superintendent, said.

“The school gardens have made a lasting impact on our students,” he said. “By utilizing the gardens as outdoor classrooms, students are learning more about nutrition, agriculture and environmental stewardship. Additionally, our students are sharpening their skills in research methods and applied mathematics. The feedback we have received from our students about the garden has been fantastic. They are having fun getting their hands dirty and experiencing the joy of watching their seeds grow into fruits and vegetables.”

“School gardens bring agriculture, our state’s largest industry, to life for Arkansas students,” Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward said. “Congratulations to the 2018 Arkansas Grown School Garden of the Year awardees. We are honored to continue this program another year and support school garden initiatives across Arkansas. We appreciate the sponsorship provided by Farm Credit that makes this important program possible.”

The Arkansas Agriculture Department and Farm Credit of Arkansas started the contest in 2014 to promote the importance of involving young people in the process of fresh food production and cultivation. Any Arkansas school, grades pre-K-12, with a working school garden during the 2017-2018 school year, or a start-up proposal for the 2018-2019 school year was eligible to apply.

“As a farmer-owned cooperative, we believe it’s important to support local food system initiatives such as the Arkansas Grown School Garden Program,” Farm Credit Midsouth President and CEO, James McJunkins, said on behalf of the Farm Credit cooperatives of Arkansas. “Local food projects like this are a great way to educate the next generation and the public about food production and agriculture.”

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture is an equal opportunity/equal access/affirmative action institution. Participants who require a reasonable accommodation to participate or if they need materials in another format, they should call 479-575-4607 as soon as possible. Dial 711 for Arkansas Relay.

— Mary Hightower is director of Communication Services at the U of A System Division of Agriculture.