PALM RIVER — It's just after sunrise, and the sounds of bleating goats fill the air. A cool breeze blows through the sugar cane as a group of kids grab their shovels. The dirt is still wet with dew. The children scrape away at little crop rows. They are laughing but meticulously focused. They dare not waste time.
The gardening happens before classes every morning at Palm River Elementary School in an area they call the farm, tucked between two classroom buildings. Hordes of students stream in to tend the school's fruits, vegetables, herbs and animals.
The students say it's fun. The teachers call it education.
"They learn patience and hands-on science, and they're working together," guidance counselor Nicole Matthews said.
Plus, they gain an appreciation for healthy foods, hard work and the environment.
"I think we're planting the seed, so to speak," said special education teacher Lori Lenas, who created the garden 20 years ago.
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Without formal gardening training, Lenas relies on advice from local master gardeners and instructions on the Internet to grow a variety of fruits, veggies and legumes.
She has raised peas, peanuts, squash, collards, strawberries, watermelon and a variety of herbs, to name a few. Last year's carrots were legendary.
"The kids were so cute when they pulled them from the ground," Lenas said. "They didn't know what they were going to get."
The animals were the most recent addition to the farm, about five years ago. The ponies, Cowboy and Casper, stand patiently as kids brush their manes. A group of homing pigeons murmur in their coop as a patchwork-colored rabbit sniffs nearby.
Lenas uses the animals' manure to fertilize the plants. She also set up a little compost bin at the front of the gate, and kids contribute their crusts and banana peels after lunch.
They use recycled newspapers and raked leaves for mulch. Lenas hopes to soon set up a rainwater collection barrel.
"Our kids are really starting to get the hang of it," she said.
Lenas lets the kids take the crops home to their families. She sells leftovers to teachers or bus drivers at a bargain price.
Third-grader Preston Warren, 9, liked the garden so much, he started his own.
"I took some tomato seeds home … they're growing," Preston said. "I think it's nice."
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For many of these children, the foods with which they're most familiar come frozen in boxes or wrapped in plastic, Matthews, the guidance counselor, said.
She said the grocery stores around the modest Palm River community leave much to be desired in the way of produce. And the fresh foods that are available cost more than their processed counterparts.
"If we can tell parents, 'Look, your kids have tasted it and they like it,' they'll be more likely to buy it," Matthews said.
Many of the kids are now eating healthy foods they'd never seen before, such as peppers and pineapples.
It's partly thanks to the garden, but also because of a federal grant, called Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, that pays for the school to introduce unfamiliar produce to students during class. Palm River is one of 10 participating schools in Hillsborough County.
The school must buy the foods from preapproved farms, which presently doesn't include the Palm River garden. But teachers say both the program and the farm are fostering a new appreciation for healthy foods.
First-grade teacher Lauren Fechtmann said she notices her kids making better choices in the cafeteria. She sees more salads, more colors on their plates and an openness to try new things.
When possible, lunchroom cooks use herbs from the Palm River garden to add a little flair.
"They love it," Fechtmann said.
It's certainly true for third-grade twins Darius and Damarcis Isom, 9.
"When I first saw the garden, it was when Mom took us to the dropoff area one day, and we saw the farm," Darius said. "I wanted to go, and I asked my teacher if I could go, and then I went, and I was like 'Wow!' "
Said Damarcis: "Nature's a wonderful thing. When I saw the garden, it made me feel like that."
The boys' grandmother has a garden in North Carolina, but they don't get to visit much because she lives so far away, Darius said. Having the garden at school is a real treat.
But while spending time there is mostly fun, the boys admit that they're learning a lot.
Darius learned that sugar cane existed. Damarcis discovered that it's tough to grow oranges from seeds.
They boys say they now understand the importance of fighting pollution and saving water. "The animals need air, fresh air," Darius said. "And I don't like to think about cutting trees."
Asked if there was anything else they'd like to share, Darius piped up again.
"When I'm not at the farm," Darius said, "it's like I want to take the farm with me."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or email@example.com.
10 Hillsborough schools in the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables program:
Mort Elementary Shaw Elementary Bing Elementary Potter Elementary Lockhart Elementary Robles Elementary Clair Mel Elementary Gibsonton Elementary Wimauma Elementary Palm River Elementary