It’s rather apropos that just outside the Turlock Unified School District Child Nutrition Department resides the Dutcher Middle School garden. Teeming with a variety of crops, the small school garden is a symbol of the vision Director Scott Soiseth has for the Child Nutrition Department—one where locally grown produce from school gardens reach the plates of TUSD students each day.
The seed of Soiseth’s vision was planted two years ago when he attended the United States Department of Agriculture’s “Produce University” where he was certified in Good Agricultural and Handling Practices for school garden development. A proactive participant in the USDA’s stringent healthy school lunch standards and already sourcing produce locally, Soiseth aims to continue to make TUSD meal offerings with fresh and natural food by founding a district garden.
With the recently acquired property on Taylor Road that will serve as the District Ag Farm for Pitman and Turlock high schools, the Child Nutrition Department has been awarded an acre plot to develop for a district garden. While gardens are not a new phenomenon in the District — several school sites alongside Dutcher currently operate gardens including Julien Elementary, Walnut Education Center, and Turlock High School — there is one in particular that has inspired Soiseth: Pitman High School.
Nestled in the hills of Waterford is the Pitman High School Garden — a well manicured acre property with rows of diverse crops on land that formerly served as a horse pasture. A colorful garden with crops ranging from tomatoes to goji berries, pumpkins to squash, the project is not only well landscaped but a sustainable operation made possible by Pitman High School Economics and U.S. Government teacher Laura Brem and students of the PHS Garden Club.
Using twine from hay bales to stake the tomatoes, pine needs on the paths that outline the rows of crops as a natural weed barrier, egg shells and coffee for fertilizer, as well as a drip irrigation system, the Pitman High School garden is a model of sustainability.
“We want to emulate the Pitman garden,” said Soiseth. “That is probably almost identical to what we want to do at the Ag Farm.”
During the summer Brem drives to Waterford several days a week with students to maintain the crops and can be found on Friday mornings selling their organic produce at the Turlock Farmers Market. While the garden has provided students instrumental insight into the agricultural industry, as well as hands-on experience, it has also afforded Brem the opportunity to fulfill her passion and share her expertise with budding agriculturalists.
“I grew up on the ranch and did FFA and 4-H like my sisters and we all took something different away from our experiences. For me, that was gardening,” said Brem.
Brem does not only have a green thumb, but has also put her economics background to the test as a savvy financial planner for the garden. With a budget of only $1,000 and the help of her parents — especially her father, a former Modesto Irrigation District employee who has helped facilitate the drip irrigation – Brem has managed to cultivate a profitable operation where funds are reintegrated into the garden.
“We run on a shoestring budget, but it is proof that you can run a garden on a small amount of funds,” said Brem who has teachers bring her egg shells and coffee grinds during the school year for the fertilizer.
While Soiseth will have more resources at his fingertips, the garden wouldn’t be possible without a knowledgeable partner to guide the way. By partnering with Brem to make the District Garden come to fruition, local students will not only have access to agricultural resources but they will become a part of a truly sustainable partnership by helping put produce on their fellow peers’ plates.
“This year we are really going to put these ideas in motion and meeting with Laura and seeing the Pitman garden last week was like the final piece of the puzzle,” said Soiseth. “We’re excited to see where this next year goes as we take steps to make this garden a reality.”