On June 12, a unique group of public and private sector partners gathered in James City County, Virginia to break ground on a new outdoor classroom that will offer natural resource education while providing fresh produce for citizens of the greater Williamsburg area.
Jason Weller, Chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), joined representatives from Dominion Virginia Power, the state of Virginia, the Colonial Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD), and James City County to unveil the Natural Resource and Farm Link Center, a partnership project that will help redefine the concept of green space in the Commonwealth.
The Colonial SWCD approached the county and power company with a bright idea for using a “right of way” easement near Thomas Nelson Community College’s James City County campus for career-based training and real-world work experiences in agriculture. The location was ideal due to its proximity to community educational and recreational facilities, access to water for irrigation, productive soils and safe public access.
Easements like this one have become popular for all-terrain vehicles, bicycles and motorcycles, but are now being considered for other uses like wildlife habitat. The three-pronged proposal (demonstration farm, learning stations, and community garden) outlined a productive way to put 15 acres of open space to work for area residents.
“This project is unique in that it covers a wide swath of the goals that we look for when awarding grant opportunities, says Melanie Rapp Beale, External Affairs Manager for Dominion Virginia Power.“It focuses on the environment, education, community improvement, leveraging partnerships, and meeting the needs of local citizens. This project will ultimately accomplish all these goals right here in one place.”
The center will be a training site for natural resource conservation and farming skills. An “incubator farm” on this parcel will provide on-site vocational training and an apprentice and mentoring program to inspire the next generation of agricultural producers. It will also be the home base for an urban community conservation corps.
“Farming requires ‘learning by doing,’” says Brian Noyes, District Manager of the Colonial SWCD. “The traditional knowledge transfer of these trade skills is virtually nonexistent today. Facilities like this one will offer opportunities to take advantage of emerging markets and a rekindled connection to the land and more cost effective practices to protect the environment.”
This educational component will also include learning stations where youth can engage in “hands on” activities on soils, the water cycle, the carbon cycle, and much more. NRCS has contributed funds for a pollinator demonstration and learning station with a 1,500 square foot native wildflower planting.
Native flowering shrubs and interpretive signs will enhance awareness of the importance of pollinators and serve as a community resource to address the challenges of habitat loss and other threats to many of these species.
With urban growth rapidly changing the landscape in Eastern Virginia, farm fresh products are now out of the reach of many customers, especially those who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. A community garden on site will help bridge this gap as one of more than 30 People’s Gardens in the Commonwealth.