BROOKSVILLE — It's official. Pine Grove Elementary School is a school — and a farm. The school has a lot of gardens, and it can legally sell its produce to the school cafeteria and to the public.
"We are now a bona fide U-pick farm for the state of Florida. We are, I believe, the very first elementary school in the nation to be certified as a farm," said Pine Grove science research teacher Doug Poteet, who also owns PAR 5 Farms Inc., a nonprofit farm, with Dwayne Ross, a volunteer and parent of a former Pine Grove student.
The two have helped the school build a food-producing farm, a butterfly attraction, a vineyard and a home for animals.
"Mr. Poteet and Mr. Ross got very industrious," principal Earl Deen said. "And now we have roosters."
Deen addressed School Board members and guests at the U-pick garden dedication, just before winter break. Visitors left with bags of lush, fresh bunches of various kinds of lettuce.
During the ceremony, the vineyard was dedicated to community member and master gardener David Furrow. Furrow has donated years of service to Pine Grove, instructing students about irrigation, tilling, plant selection and propagation and cultivation. He was instrumental in creating the vineyard.
Poteet is passionate about produce that can be used in the school cafeteria. The bottom line, he said, is "how to get better food for kids."
The farm needed to be certified, which required paperwork and meeting certain specifications, including a wash station.
In a 30- by 40-foot area, there are 1,260 growth cells that are continuously rotated, Poteet said.
"We use absolutely no pesticides," he said.
Students work the gardens, and they haven't cost the district a penny, he said.
"This lettuce is fabulous," Pine Grove fourth-grade teacher Patty Doyle said. "The Science Club maintains the roosters and the U-pick garden. We sell to the school (cafeteria) for a dollar a head."
The gardens, which span the length of the inner courtyard, consist of the U-pick one, the vineyard, plots that individual classrooms maintain and a Florida-friendly garden, which attracts hummingbirds and butterflies.
"I love it," Deen said. "It helps our students see the connection between working and producing something that is healthy and can lead to a skill that they can pursue and make a living at."
Many community members and organizations have significantly helped the school achieve its impressive production level. Those include organic plant expert Dorie Bond and chemist J.B. Williams. Doug and Maryanne Hoteling provide seeds and get the plants started.
"They grow our seedlings for us," Ross said.
William Lester, a University of Florida agriculture extension expert, was integrally involved in the Florida-friendly garden. He was also the agent who signed the school's farm status.
Other contributors have included the Auroveda Foundation; Dr, Maria Scunziasno-Singh; J. Stacy Strickland; Lori Drenth; Hernando County Master Gardeners; D&S Blueberries; Sherwood Forest-Hilldreth Landscaping; Golden X; John Deere; Home Depot; X Farms; Prosperity Farms; and Chris and Tina Tauriello. Par 5 Farms donates seeds and fertilizer, along with its owners' time.
By far, Ross and Poteet put the most volunteer time into the gardens. To Ross, it's "for the kids, the excitement you see when they get out here, and watching them see what they grow."
School Board member Beth Narverud said she would like to see programs like the one at Pine Grove in as many schools as possible.
"Whatever we can do to make this happen in our county, I will do, because it is important," Narverud said. "I just think it's wonderful to have agricultural programs."