Peter Skelton points with pride to the many seedlings growing outside his greenhouse at Memorial Middle Schools. The seedlings, of concord grapes, and some special varieties of apple and apricot, have all been grafted onto hardy rootstock by his students.
“We are researching which strains are appropriate for this bioregion,” Skelton said. “We are also using this to teach the students the differences between hybrids and clones.”
Skelton holds a doctoral degree in natural resource sciences with an emphasis in agroforestry and agroecology. He is employed by New Mexico State University, and operates the Youth Science Center at the middle school.
“We’re giving the students high content, high context academic instruction along with giving them practical skills,” Skelton said. “I want to teach these kids that they can grow food successfully, and that it is a three-legged stool – what they are doing must be economically viable, socially acceptable and environmentally sound.”
Skelton has a number of demonstration projects going at the Middle School. Outside the greenhouse is a straw-bale enclosed compost pile, and several raised bed gardens full of vegetables and medicinal herbs, which he calls “remedios.” Asked where he got the idea for combining straw bale structures with compost, he said, “This is how my grandfather used to do it.”
Skelton’s grandfather, a Nebraska farmer, imparted a good deal of farm lore to Skelton that he would never have learned in a classroom.
Below the greenhouse, there is a large area row-planted with cabbages, peas and other vegetables. The plot is drip irrigated, and occasionally flood-irrigated with acequia water.
“We are using this area to teach the kids about crop rotation,” Skelton said. “We also want to expose them to as many different agricultural techniques and practices as we can.”
Above the greenhouse, on the other side of the acequia, is an area that Skelton envisions planted with a variety of different gardens, including xeriscape and permaculture gardens, which would serve as both a teaching tool for the students and a resource for the community at large.
The produce grown by the program currently goes to the Salvation Army for distribution to the community. But Skelton says he would like to have guest chefs come in and do summer fundraiser dinners, preparing the food grown by the students into gourmet meals to generate revenue to support the Science Center. And he would like to provide the produce to the school as well, so the students can savor the fruits of their labors.
In the current program, sixth-grade students are taught about ecological restoration, seventh-graders are taught agro-ecology, and eighth-graders are taught ecological monitoring. Currently, the program is only at the middle school. But Skelton envisions a curriculum that could extend through high school, community college and perhaps even NMSU.