Of cabbages and things

12th October 2007 at 01:00

Her dad's big gentle cows have helped 16-year-old Jennifer MacDonald plan her future. And now, at her school's city farm, she's learning to produce crops and sell them.

"I'm hoping to be a farmer and take over my dad's cattle. I like my dad's cows because they are really friendly. You can come up to them and just clap them and they wouldn't be bothered," says the Inverness High pupil.

In a corner of her school's playing fields, Jennifer is learning how to tell Kerr's Pinks from Golden Wonders with the help of farm manager Iain Findlay.

Nearly an acre of the school ground has been cultivated, with two polytunnels in the far corner and drills of potatoes, cabbages, spinach, onions and beetroot in regimented rows.

Everything here is grown organically and fertilised with seaweed harvested from nearby Clachnaharry Beach. And the pupils visit local farmers' markets on a regular basis to sell the produce.

Today, they are at the headquarters of Scottish Natural Heritage in Inverness, where they set up stall to sell vegetables to staff. The school also supplies one of the city's top restaurants, The Mustard Seed, with salad leaves.

This Real Organics project is one of the initiatives under the Real Education Active Lives scheme, which aims to provide improvements in school facilities and the curriculum, and give youngsters work experience and community involvement. Inverness High was the only Highland school awarded funding under the Schools of Ambition initiative.

"We are looking to encourage community development through sustainable flows of cash. It's all about creating industries where young people can get involved," explains Iain Clyne, the project's social enterprise manager.

He says the farming venture is the first of a number of projects planned and will involve youngsters across the school: "There are biology classes involved, senior girls who are on the Government's Project Scotland scheme. There are volunteers and youngsters who come for support for learning and we are hoping to develop links with home economics, physics and other departments across the school," he says.

But, like all farmers, the Inverness High pupils are finding the summer weather has taken its toll on this year's crops.

"We planted a lot this year that came to absolutely nothing it was a complete wipe-out with a lot of things," says Mr Findlay.

"Tomatoes, peas and beans did very badly as well. Lots of things just didn't grow because of the weather. I'm sure it will be different next year."

Mr Findlay acknowledges that introducing teenagers to the joys of horticulture can be challenging.

"Lots of them are utterly terrified of getting their hands dirty, don't like spiders and what not," he says. "But it's a matter of finding things for them to do initially that don't threaten them and that they find enjoyable.

"So I get them to plant a lot of stuff and start the process off with the germinating. That way they see results quickly and they start to see the process take shape, and that's how you hope to engage them."

Mr Findlay is a crusader in educating youngsters about the environmental benefits of buying locally grown produce: "It's quite evident that a lot of children don't know anything about where their food comes from or how it's grown. It shocks me that we have allowed it to get to this stage where people are completely ignorant of their food."

For pupils like Jennifer, with an agricultural background, it's less of an up hill struggle: "I think it's healthier than the stuff you could buy from a supermarket because you know it's freshly out of the ground," she says.

"I've found it a very good experience. I've been planting cabbages and lettuces, making soil blocks that's the blocks of mud we plant the seeds in and once they've germinated, we put them in the ground."

But she admits the financial side of the venture is more of a challenge. "Business, I have learnt, is not as easy as it looks," she says. "I struggle with the maths bit of the business, so it usually takes me forever to add up everything."

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