BOONEVILLE — On May 24, a hot morning sun gained strength over a plowed field of river bottom, while up the slope inside Owsley County High School, many agendas for that land were being merged into one.
For agriculture teacher Alan Taylor, the field represents a chance to show his students more real-life agriculture and business. For Charlotte Thompson, it means more fresh produce in the Owsley County High School cafeteria.
For three University of Kentucky students, Ben Smith, Luke McAnally and Patrick Johnson, the land represents a community project that could be duplicated across Eastern Kentucky, and for school Superintendent Tim Bobrowski, it's a chance to move Owsley County beyond the constant headlines about poverty and lack of education.
"We know one entity can't do it all," Bobrowski says during a planning meeting. "We know we have to work together on this."
"This" is Homegrown Kentucky, Owsley County, roughly 10 acres of flood plain owned by the school to be farmed by students and residents. The land is being carved into individual community gardens for residents, who are given tools and seeds, and for students who will grow fruits and vegetables for their own use and for sale by the school.
It's a complicated venture, bringing together UK students, community organizations, UK extension agents and the local school system. But everyone involved says they're sure they can move beyond a one-and-done community project, where the ribbon is cut with much fanfare, and then the project fades out of consciousness.
"This is a really big thing in the poorest county in Kentucky," said Sandy Gay, a board member of Eastern Kentucky PRIDE and the program coordinator for the Owsley County Conservation District. "What community member doesn't want to be part of something that benefits the community and benefits themselves?"
A 'food desert' in Kentucky
The Homegrown Kentucky ribbon was cut without too much fanfare May 24, but planning had begun long before that in Lexington. A group of UK students was trying to figure out how to best work with the Clinton Global Initiative, started by former President Bill Clinton to help solve the world's most pressing problems.
The students started by looking at Appalachian poverty, then the concept of "food deserts," communities in the industrialized world where healthy, affordable food is hard to find, and residents suffer from related health problems such as obesity and diabetes.
When the students started talking to people like Gay, they realized that Owsley County might be a good fit: it's small, with only about 4,000 residents, 41 percent of whom live below the poverty line. Best of all, the school system and county officials had been talking about the best ways to use a big plot of land the school owned.
Owsley County, meanwhile, already was working on food issues. Three years ago, the local farmers market moved to a larger location at the high school. There are now 12 to 14 vendors every weekend, said Paul Sizemore, the UK agriculture extension agent, and they hope to expand, with students selling Homegrown fruits and vegetables.
Fruit, such as berries, might be a big part of the acreage, Sizemore said. Owsley County has plenty of people who grow beans and corn but not many who grow fruit. "We want to have a good mix of things," he said.
The UK contingent started meeting with Owsley Countians, making the drive every few weeks to Booneville, until the idea was enough of a reality that the high school students were starting seeds in the school greenhouse for people to plant.
With a grant from UK student government and the UK sustainability council, and along with the tried-and-true bake sale fund-raising, the Homegrown students got together $2,000 for tools and seeds, which must be spent with Owsley County merchants.
Bigger equipment was provided by the conservation district, including that needed to build an irrigation system from the bordering creek to the fields. The local branch of Farmers State Bank bought the project a new, apple-red tractor.
"We didn't want to force the idea on them," Smith, who recently completed a post-baccalaureate fellowship in philosophy at UK and will be going to law school at the University of Maryland, said of the project. "In order for this to be a success, Owsley County had to take ownership of it, and they have."
Smith co-founded the project with UK students Ben Norton and Adam Meredith.
'You can grow anything on it'
The green tops of potatoes and some beans are poking out of the soil now, with much more to be planted.
"This is very, very fertile ground," said Taylor, the ag teacher. "You can grow anything on it."
His students will work on the land this summer alongside UK students from Homegrown Kentucky and a host of community members. Together they plan to fill in the acres with fruits and vegetables, plus the sorghum and corn Taylor grows every year for his students to harvest. (The sorghum stir-off is in October, and the final product is marketed by students.)
Other plans include a commercial kitchen where students and community members may retrace their agricultural heritage by learning how to preserve the food they grow.
"When people see this," Taylor said, "they will want to be here."