Wes Swanson adjusts a pair of plastic sunglasses on a scarecrow. The students wanted it to be more like them, so they dressed it in a hoodie and attached a phone to the arm.
The scarecrow’s name is Davis Peter.
“I don’t know where they got the name,” said Peter Davis, urban farming teacher at Charlottesville High School.
The students were tending to the high school’s community garden for their Urban Farming and Marketing I class in early March. In the class, the students go through all the steps needed to farm and garden produce. Learning happens in the school garden, greenhouse and Sigma Lab, an engineering computer lab in the library.
The students also learn ways to run a successful business, such as marketing and how to be ready to join a workplace. They practice their skills by selling the produce they grow throughout the year. Davis said his current class is hoping to sell their products outside the school one day.
The class started six years ago when the high school collaborated with the local nonprofit Cultivate Charlottesville. The organization’s City Schoolyard Garden initiative began when a group of parents wanted students to have hands-on, outdoor experiences with gardening. Cultivate Charlottesville built its first garden at Buford Middle School in 2010.
Inspired by the success of the garden, Rosa Atkins, who was superintendent from 2006 to 2021, invited the organization to plant a garden at each public school in Charlottesville.
So now, all schools have gardens, but Charlottesville High School and Buford Middle School are the only schools with urban farming classes. Students at Buford can take Urban Farming and Marketing I, and students at Charlottesville High can take both Urban Farming and Marketing I and II for one credit each.
Urban farming education is on the rise, especially among youth, according to Leonrd Githinji, professor of sustainable and urban agriculture at Virginia State University. There is a growing interest in local food systems across the state, especially in central and northern Virginia, he said.
“Urban agriculture education targeting the youth is very important considering the aging population of the U.S. farmers across the nation,” said Githinji. “It’s imperative to equip the youth and prepare them to be farmers and agricultural scientists of the future.”
And that work of training the next generation is happening in Charlottesville.
Cultivate Charlottesville tends to the Charlottesville High garden over the summer, but students can also tend to the farm whenever they please, said Davis. Because summer is peak growing time for many of the plants, Cutivate Charlottesville interns gather the crops for the organization’s food distribution.
Taking the urban farming class is a breath of fresh air to junior Nava Khurgel. She enjoys the outdoors and wanted to pursue her interests in her coursework. Khurgel is passionate about ecoliteracy, understanding how natural systems on the planet function in order to sustain natural life. As the climate crisis endures, learning to do something as small as gardening can not only improve someone’s environmental footprint, but also help them better understand nature, she said.
“It’s really important for all people,” said Khurgel. “I want to have a little garden wherever I’m living. Now I’m more prepared to do that.”
Nava Khurgel is a junior at Charlottesville High School. A previous version of this story misidentified her year.