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Land Labs Convert Classrooms Into Farms

Virginia students are hands-on when it comes to agriculture

June 2023

The 6-acre Isle of Wight County Agricultural Land Lab offers a broad range of hands-on farm activities to students. PHOTO BY ALICE KEMP

By Alice Kemp and Nicole Zema, Virginia Farm Bureau Federation

On a typical day at Virginia’s school land labs, students are busy weighing pigs, growing vegetables, fixing fences and installing irrigation systems.

“That’s routine for high schoolers enrolled in agriculture classes,” says Daniel Judkins, farm manager for the 6-acre Isle of Wight County Agricultural Land Lab. Judkins and agriculture teacher Jason Brittle oversee the farm and share their knowledge with students.

An impressive red barn stands out against the rural landscape. The farm is almost entirely student-built and student-run.

“They’re in charge of everything that happens on the farm every day,” Judkins notes.

Students raise pigs from their weaning weight up to 300 pounds, administer wormers and immunizations to the farm’s herd of 20 goats, and use the goats’ milk to make soap.

Additionally, the students cultivate, harvest and market crops, like collards and strawberries, to school staff and the community—often quickly selling out.

“Whether it’s the garden, the animals, or driving the tractor, it gives them more opportunities to find their passion,” Judkins says.

While learning about livestock production, farm business management and agriculture technology, students are evaluated on project work.

“It’s neat to see their minds explore different career opportunities,” he adds.

Castlewood High School eighth grader Maddox Salyer hand-blends a potting mix in the greenhouse in preparation for a plant sale. PHOTO BY NICOLE ZEMA

Castlewood High School eighth grader Maddox Salyer hand-blends a potting mix in the greenhouse in preparation for a plant sale.PHOTO BY NICOLE ZEMA

Judkins says the farm receives grants and donations, and that community support has been overwhelming. He notes that while it’s an example of project-based learning success, land labs are unique in Virginia, and there are only a handful scattered across the state.

He hopes the success of the Isle of Wight farm will inspire other school districts to start their own.

Of the many lessons learned at Castlewood High School’s agricultural land lab, a strong sense of resourcefulness resonates with students—no matter what professions they might pursue.

The Russell County school’s agriculture program was established in 2016 and now exposes 71 students to farm concepts. Its land lab includes a half-acre paddock, greenhouse, garage barn, workshop and community cannery, where students learn livestock management, horticulture, marketing, genetics, fabrication, food preservation and more.

“Our land lab is a space to get hands-on with these competencies,” says educator and FFA instructor Emily Hines, a Castlewood alumna. “We’re small, and that can be good in a lot of ways.”

Students from both rural and suburban backgrounds are immersed in agricultural activities—raising chickens for eggs; caring for sheep, goats, guinea pigs and rabbits; building raised beds; and cultivating ornamental plants and herbs.

Workdays make up a portion of students’ grades. In the barn, Hines helped students trim goat and sheep hooves. In the greenhouse, they hand-blended soil to pot 200 succulents for a plant sale.

“It’s cheaper to mix our own potting soil, sand and vermiculite for about $75,” Hines says. “And we’ll get a whole lot more.”

Not all the students will go into agricultural careers, Hines adds. “However, at the end of the day, they’ll all go to the grocery store to choose a piece of meat and read food labels. That’s important, and they can share that knowledge.”