Amber Trails School's garden growing into state-of-the-art $6-million outdoor classroom

Seven Oaks School Division is building a state-of-the- art $6 million dollar facility on 50 acres of land in West St. Paul.

'There is so much these kids can learn', teacher says of new Seven Oaks agriculture-learning centre

Students at Amber Trails showing off broccoli grown in their school garden. (Supplied)

Simon Hon has planted seeds that are bearing a lot of fruit — and even more vegetables. 

The Amber Trails teacher started a garden club last year that quickly grew into a small vegetable farm in front of the school. 

Now, Hon's idea is being expanded into a new $6-million agricultural learning centre.

The 25,000-square foot state-of-the-art facility will be built on 50 acres of land in West St. Paul. It will have an outdoor classroom with vegetable gardens, a tree nursery, and even a barn and corral. Animals could be part of the picture down the road. An indigenous garden will grow crops such as squash, beans and corn.

Hon, who was an organic farmer for 13 years before becoming a teacher, never suspected his small farm would grow into such a large project. 

"It's pretty exciting. There is so much these kids can learn that crosses many curriculum subjects. Everything from math and environmental sustainability to social justice. Who does the work on the farm and how hard is it?" said Hon.

Started small 

"We decided which crops we were going to grow, which are worth more per square foot, so they learned some agronomics, the basics of accounting," said Hon. "We looked at all the environmental factors such as where the sun is, where the community people are, where the kids are playing, whether it would disrupt any sports activities or not."

To start, they grew kale, Swiss chard, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli and herbs. Students even came to work on the small farm during their summer holidays.

In return, they got a bag of locally grown vegetables to take home. Neighbourhood residents stepped up to buy the produce; parents and teachers bought shares of the yield. 

Whatever money was made from selling the produce was invested back into the farm program. 

"They saw stuff growing from seed to harvest, it was a big deal for them. They put the seeds in the ground, watered it and saw the outcome and then tasted it. Experiential learning at its best," said Hon.
Amber Trails students work in their school's garden. (Supplied)

No outside financing needed

Seven Oaks superintendent Brian O'Leary says the division recently sold its maintenance bus facility on McPhillips. The proceeds will cover the cost of the new learning centre.

They invited area residents to an open house about the centre earlier this month, and O'Leary said neighbours were thrilled. 

"People are highly excited. They are so excited to see this coming on board. The feedback we are getting is that this is a very good fit for undeveloped agricultural land," said O'Leary.

However, last month displeased community members began going door-to-door in the area to inform their neighbours development, taking issue with the fact that the 49-acre site is also the division's proposed new school bus parking lot and maintenance facility. 

Zoning approval has been obtained and the school division is now completing the design. Construction is to begin this summer.

Changing kids' diets

Hon says he is seeing more kids eating fresh veggies from the garden.

"We would have a snack while working — and we would just grab a cabbage, spray it off with the hose and cut it up, and we were snacking on cabbage. Kids instantly realized that this carrot here that comes from the ground tastes better than the one that comes from the store," said Hon.

That's the the kind of learning he wants for his students. Kids connecting with food, knowing where it came from and how buying local makes a difference. 

And he says the change is spreading. When he took club members out during recess to pull weeds, they were soon joined by kids from other grades who wanted to join in. 

The new learning centre is expected to open in the summer of 2018.